Chunni Babu lives in the rich Melbourne suburb of Brighton. These days, he's a real estate tycoon, but back in the 80s, he lived a completely different life. Amid the tyranny of Zia Ul-Haq's dictatorship, Babu set up invitation-only swingers parties catering to the upper echelons of Pakistani society. They were a raging success for several years, until the whole thing imploded.
I've known Babu for a long time but had never heard the full story. So, recently, I paid him a visit to smoke hookah on his balcony and ask the big questions about how his parties came about, when they met their end, and how he justified swinging under his Muslim faith.
VICE: Let's start with Pakistan in the late 70s. What was the political mood when you started these parties?
Chunni Babu: It was heavy. The country really derailed under the military dictatorship of Zia Ul-Haq [Pakistan's dictator between 1978–1988]. Zia Ul-Haq enforced his ideals like a tyrant and reversed all the progressive socialist ideals of the previous government. I worked as a property developer. My family started converting the old traditional markets into modern shopping centers and leasing them out. But, socially, my wife and I spent a lot of time indoors. It was our own remote Pakistan, away from the humdrum outside.
Talk me though how the parties started.
Well, our social circles were quite small. We were always around the same people most weekends, so we got to know each other very well. One night, we had two couples visiting us, and they propositioned us. We were all quite high, listening to Rafi's ballads, and we thought, Why not?
How did one night turn into several?
Well, I put my hand up to host another party because I was somewhat of a virgin to the swinger scene. I was curious, but I had trustworthy contacts that would provide musicians and dancers. We began a mailing list, and we sent out some beautiful gold-trimmed invitations handwritten by a Peshawari artist who specialized in Arabic calligraphy. The first few were small and just our [friends], but, like everything in Pakistan, word got out, the bureaucracy took over, and upper-echelon guests would invite whomever they pleased. My poor guards suffered several beatings from brutes and politicians who couldn't be turned away.
So people just started turning up at your house?
Yes, but I wanted the people I loved to be free, to experience and indulge in the small amount of time we have on this planet. Sexual liberation is an old idea that we've fogged up as we've become more "civilized" whatever that means.
I've heard about practices that occur in secrecy on the fringes and in wealthy parts of the Arab world.
Yes, apparently they called it "the night of Ifada," where the candles would be blown out and fate would allow you to indulge in whatever act happened with those around you.
All images by Ben Thomson
How did you get away with this in the midst of a dictatorship?
The police were paid off, of course. And the dictatorship made it all the more exciting. Everyone wanted a taste of freedom, and I am of the opinion that whenever you enforce an ideology that's too hard, the people will rebel—it's just in our nature. So rebelling is what we did, in the crudest way possible.
More sexual, more liberated, and eventually more sinister. At first, I assumed it was influences of Western freedom—with hippies constantly visiting northern parts of India and even Afghanistan—but I was wrong. The higher classes, social groups, and orders have an almost sacred ritualistic view of sexuality with roots that are entrenched in history and tradition.
How sinister did these parties get?
Our last party had more than 50 guests. This was in the mid 80s, and I had the house decked out in a Mughal-style theme. It was a warm night, but I was feeling frantic, patrolling the house to make sure everything was going well because there were people I didn't really know. They'd arrived with friends from very high places, sons of politicians and rich gangsters connected to Mafia syndicates. In Pakistan, these two types of people are sometimes the same.
As I went in to the guest quarters, one of the servants was sweating and panicking, saying he had seen something he shouldn't have. He was scared. My initial reaction was, OK, he must've seen two men having sex. But I was wrong. Apparently, one of the goons had give two of our dancers heroin, and one of them was convulsing. The culprit had left, shouting at one of the servants to clean up the mess. I sobered up, sharp, like waking into a strange nightmare. I could hear the ghazals being sung downstairs, and an English couple romping in the kitchen area. It was bizarre and frightening.
Was the dancer OK?
I'd rather not talk about it. But I will say nobody at the party even bothered to ask how she was. That was extremely upsetting. It all ended in that bloody mess.
How long had your parties gone for?
We ran them pretty regularly for about five years, usually at my home. When we finished, a lot of the guests splintered out and began their own private circles. They began organizing secret parties that were strictly not spoken about, just in order to keep the local gangsters and thugs out. These parties trickled down to India, and even back to London as well. Some are still running in private today. Whenever I go to Mumbai, Dubai, or Karachi, I'll receive a phone call from an old acquaintance asking if I want to party like the old days.
Do you think any of this jeopardizes your faith as a Muslim?
Maybe it does, but usually the people who will tell you that are so are hung up in their own insecurities. Religion to me is a personal thing, a direct relationship with Allah. I believe in right and wrong. I've never harmed anyone in my life, and I believe if I'm ever judged that the good will outweigh the bad. We had a great time and allowed people to explore their relationships and themselves more than they ever thought possible. It was like a taste of heaven and hell in a world that didn't seem to have a place for us.
Do you find yourself still reminiscing about those days?
All the time. We had so much fun. We were really out there exploring, not like the youth today stuck behind their computer screens. We had big ideas and the courage to pursue them. The further I've moved away from that era and place, I've found myself gravitating toward a suit and tie affair, a very sober, conservative lifestyle. But maybe that's the spirit of the times we live in today.