The six people in the room have met just once before — at a coffee shop. The last of the guests enters the room and waves a nervous hi to all. As is a practice in most Indian homes, she slips the sandals off her feet, but then proceeds to take off the rest of her clothes to bare herself, stretch-marks and all. In any other setting, this might be scandalous, but at an Indian naturist meet, this is how it happens.
Naturism or nudism refers to a philosophy advocating non-sexual, voluntary nudity in private and "appropriate" public spaces.
Unlike exhibitionism, where individuals seek to attract attention towards their nudity, naturism is simply about, well, being naked. It is not a sexual orientation or kink. Instead, it's a lifestyle choice, like vegetarianism.
The gratification, naturists claim, does not come from watching others naked, but from being naked yourself. The concept is fairly popular abroad, with family-friendly nude beaches and other clothing-optional areas like parks. India is predictably discreet and naturist meets here are closeted away from the public domain.
Which is why such meets usually take place in hotel rooms or in the privacy of a fellow naturist's home. Typically, a "trial meet" precedes an actual nudist meet.
"Participants at trial meets are always clothed. It helps remove inhibitions," explains Pravin (name changed), a techie from Bangalore and a nudist for over a decade. Pravin's first nudist experience was in the early '90s at Wreck Beach, Canada. He was a little hesitant to begin with, but seeing everyone in the buff, he began to "feel like a veteran" in a few hours.
"The experience of air, sand and water on bare skin was so good that I spent almost all weekends of the summer on the beach," says Pravin. Thrilled by the experience, he returned to India only to find virtually no activity on the nude front. Strange, considering the perpetual buzz about Goa's Anjuna Beach and Vagator Beach being nude beaches.
"I had heard about Goa's nude beaches, but I knew it wasn't true. Those nudist beaches were more about hippies, drugs and sex rather than nudism."
He then went online to find fellow naturists and set up an e-group in the year 2000. The group, now 290-member strong, hopes to influence legislation that will secure clothing-optional areas for nudists. But Pravin admits it will be a long time before such a change comes about.
While Pravin's brush with nudism happened on foreign shores, 63-year-old Deepak Nagda has a Mumbai connection. "I have gone skinny-dipping at Marve beach and Powai lake, when Mumbai was not as crowded a place," he reminisces. Once he even persuaded a male friend to ride au naturel with him on his Lambretta scooter.
"Luckily we did not run into anyone, something impossible in today's Mumbai even in the remotest corners." Nagda considers himself lucky to be married to a woman who, despite her conservative upbringing, supports his hobby. In fact, 56-year-old Leena (name changed) has even joined her husband on several nudist outings. While some of these have been abroad, others are hosted by a friend in Delhi.
"We meet twice or thrice a year with as many as five couples or as few as two," he reveals. Apart from Delhi, Kolkata, Pune and the beaches of Orissa are said to be popular with naturists. Goa does not lose out either as 46-year-old Mary Fernandes testifies.
She recalls her wonderful experience at Arambol beach in Goa where she swam and walked naked with a friend. But with the law intolerant to such activity, nudists have little option but to keep things under cover.
"In India, social nudity is equated with, sexual perversion or promiscuity, so one cannot afford to indulge in it openly," laments Deepak. Pravin blames it on the Victorian era. "Ironically, in a land where sculptures and paintings clearly indicate that medieval-era Indians practised naturism, we need many more decades to get back to that stage." He optimistically points out naga sadhus at the Kumbh Mela and Jain monks as cases where nudism has been accepted by society.
That argument, though, doesn't find favour with Advocate Vibhav Krishna. "The constitution guarantees certain privileges when they are critical to a religion, which explains why certain sadhus and monks are allowed to stay naked. But you can't take that example for absurdities like nudism. By that logic, everyone will demand the right to carry a sword because a section of Sikhs carry the kirpan," he argues.
Regardless of such stiff opposition, naturists claim that the practice achieves what Marxists can only dream of - a classless society.
No Gucci or Prada tags on the skin, or any such discriminators that tell a man who owns a Beemer from his chauffer who drives it.
No vertical stripes to play alibi to all that flab. It is perhaps this strange promise of liberation, equality and a different experience that is compelling more Indians to seek fellow naturists on the Internet.
And if the surge of curious enquiries on naturist forums is anything to go by, India is teeming with people willing to shed their inhibitions, and clothes.