Interview
Saleem Kidwai Uncovers the Many Faces of Gay India

By Raj Ayyar

Saleem Kidwai is the co-editor of Same-Sex Love in India When I surfaced in India recently, I e-mailed Saleem Kidwai, hoping for a timeless cosmic duet, sipping a latte at a South Delhi cafe, or enjoying a communion of souls at a Sufi tavern in Nowhere, reclining on couches, waited on by exquisite round-faced, dewy-eyed youths. Alas, we had to settle for the unfleshy prosaic medium of e-print for this interview.

Saleem is a former Associate Professor of History at Delhi University. He is an Islamic Studies scholar who undermines any straight monolithic view of Islam as homophobic and sex-phobic.

On the contrary, he shows that there is a tension, sometimes creative and sometimes unbearable, between the censorious Islamic texts and institutions and the open same-sex celebrations of many Islamic poets and others.

Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita created gay history when they co-edited and published Same-Sex Love in India (NY: St. Martin's Press, 2000). It is a ground-breaking work that challenges the cheap stereotype that Indian tradition has always been too conservative-Puritan to allow any homoerotic exploration, forcing the odd exception into gay refugee status in the ghettoes of London, Amsterdam, NYC or San Francisco.
Raj Ayyar: Tell us a little about Saleem---the weave of your life, 'the wonder, the wonder' of it as well as 'the horror, the horror.'

Saleem Kidwai: I do not want to untangle the weave, so can only offer bio-strands. I was born in Lucknow where I went to school. I came to Delhi to study History in 1968 when I was 17. I started teaching at Delhi University in 1973 and took leave to study at McGill from 1976-80. I chose to retire from Delhi University in 1993. Since then I have been researching and writing for myself.

I would not want to rate the wonders. Each is precious and there are many. A supportive family and friends, moments of discovery, time with lovers, the well sung ghazal or thumri, and on and on.

The horrors: I'll make it brief. The loss of loved ones, AIDS, the killing of innocents developing into a spectator sport. And yes, a minor one was being in the Truxx in Montreal when it was busted , twenty-five years ago this fall.

Raj Ayyar: You know, there are many in the West as well as in India and elsewhere who see homoeroticism as a 'Western import.' This false cliche held by colonialists and post-colonial ultra-nationalists, by right-wingers and leftists of whatever stripe, is powerfully challenged in Same-Sex Love in India. You and Ruth Vanita have done a great job of uncovering gay texts throughout Indian history, from the ancient Hindu Shastras to the present. Do you think this has created any change in the view that gayness is a Western monopoly?

Saleem Kidwai: Yes, the deliberate ignoring of homoeroticism, even by academia, was something that angered both Ruth and myself. Has the book changed anything? It's too early to tell since the it's been out for less than a year. I think it has made some change. I have had men who I did not know come up to thank me for doing the book.

The most compelling was the young man who tried to touch my feet and with folded hands thanked me for helping him understand his religion. (I conveyed the compliment to where it should have been directed, namely to Ruth) I hope it will make a change. As for gayness being a western monopoly, I have never seen the argument framed in this way. I hope the change will be towards making gayness as an option in the choice of lifestyle.

The over-all change in any case, is going to be slow. Rural and small town India will stay unchanged for longer. Even among the educated urbanites, the discourse is going to reach a very small section.

I also must stress that our work is not an isolated achievement. There is exciting activity elsewhere too. Our book is a part of this development. I see the change in the brief history of our book. In 1998 we were peddling our 'work in progress' in India and most publishers liked the work but found an excuse not to publish the book. Today the book is in the bookshops and is being sold without any problems. Publishers now approach me to do a 'popular' book on the subject. Yes, there have been changes.

Raj Ayyar: Do you feel that the greater openness of alternative sexualities in India over the past 20 years or so, could lead to a dramatic change in societal acceptance of LGBT people in India? Or, are we stuck in the parks-and-latrines syndrome of furtively pleasurable sex acts that may not and cannot be named?

Saleem Kidwai: No. I don't see dramatic changes unless there is state-backed persecution like we are seeing in Egypt which I remember as surprisingly swingy in the late 80's. Over the twenty years I have seen major changes and anticipate more, but hopefully no dramatic ones. 20 years ago I would not have believed that I would be around to go out for a drink to a gay bar in Delhi, even if it was one night a week.

When the first few 'gay-nights' were held, people would not be allowed in for lack of space .Yes, the changes have led to greater acceptance, greater awareness and no surprising increase in reported homophobic incidents.

However, I am apprehensive of a backlash. The timing will be decided by the Right which has increasingly begun to set the political agenda in India. Here again, the example of Egypt comes to mind.

It is a mistake to link social acceptance of alternative sexualities to the parks-and-latrines syndrome. They coexist every where. What was George Michael doing in that latrine? People might prefer different things and the choice should be theirs. The wonderful change that I have seen has seen is the creation of alternatives to latrines and parks.

Now there are barely-underground bars and pay-parties for people to cruise in. That some still prefer the L&Ps is their choice. Some people get their rocks off talking to unknown people on the telephone! Why grudge people their pleasures?

Raj Ayyar: Do you agree with psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar and others that India is a culture of 'shame' rather than 'guilt?' In other words, sexual acts of whatever kind are okay, provided you're not caught or humiliated socially?

Saleem Kidwai: To a point, because Indian culture did not stop 200 years ago. Guilt has become very much a part of the Indian psyche and it would be foolish to dismiss it. For Heaven's sake, Gandhi felt guilty for having sex with his wife.

I worked on a gay helpline for a year in 2000 and answered more calls from males who felt guilt for masturbating than from those who find who felt guilty of finding men sexually attractive. I can bet there are many millions of Indians, homo and heterosexual who associate guilt with sex. Make what you want out of this.
Raj Ayyar

Raj Ayyar: Don't you think it's ironic that post-colonial India should cling to outworn colonial laws set in place by old ideologues of Empire like Macaulay? I'm thinking of the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code--our anti-sodomy law...do you see any changes happening as a result of Naz Foundation and other groups challenging this dinosaur law in high court?

Saleem Kidwai: Ironic yes, but surprising, no. There are many antiquated laws that would make a great spoof.

My informed-gut feeling tells me that changes are around the corner. They will come through judicial action rather that legislative action which is for the best for the moment. There is no place for public debate in the current din and any legislative change would bring out the fundamentalists and give them a platform. And sex as a soap box has been proved very effective. Can you imagine all the guilty, sexually repressed crowds that would collect around them?

Groups have been lobbying for change in rape, prostituion and child abuse laws. I think sec 377 will be replaced by a larger law dealing with sexual crimes. I don't believe there will be a change that will satisfy all. Sec 377 will be go along with a lot of other junk

Your reference to 'Naz Foundation and 'other groups' is a good example of the point I made earlier. The challenge to sec 144 of the Indian Penal Code is now associated with the Naz Foundation of India (NFI). ABVA (Coalition to End Discrimination against AIDS), a non-government organization had asked the Delhi Hight Court to declare the sec unconstitutional as far back as 1994.

The case has been followed up by volunteer activists. This case had been wait-listed for so long and the court clubbed the NFI petition along with it. Hence the early hearing of the NFI plea. NFI, a funded organization, was also better equipped to generate publicity around the case. It would be unfair to sideline ABVA, a non-gay/lesbian group, from this history.

Raj Ayyar: Do you think that greater awareness of gay discourses via MTV, different soaps etc., has created more self-consciousness and bashfulness in young middle-class Indians? I don't see the same degree of publicly affectionate same-sex bonding on the streets today as there was a few decades ago. In an almost Foucauldian sense, once the same sex relationship becomes the site of forbidden sex discourse, there are new taboos. What do you think?

Saleem Kidwai: Awareness has naturally led to a self consciousness. Talking of cable tv, I wonder if the change has only been in this change in public body language. Who knows what is what is changing in private? If the sitcoms with their constant homesexual innuendoes, if Joey and Ross admit that they like to sleep together on a couch, and if gay men can have sexy women friends, it must be considered hip to be gay.

When the only public gay role models in India are associated with the glamour industry, that too, is bound to change perceptions. I believe that more and more homosexual men are out to more and more heterosexual friends who consider it 'cool' and many are discovering that they want to 'try it out'.

Yes, new taboos are bound to appear. And they will have to be dealt with the way earlier taboos were. It will also be a chance to test theories.

Raj Ayyar: Don't you think that an Indian/South Asian gay awareness needs to draw upon the richness of its own homoerotic texts and practices rather than simply borrowing the gay bar, the inevitable coming-out group, the trappings of Western gay 'McWorld?' And if so, isn't the clinging, tender, physically expressive same-sex yaari/sakhyani bonding critical to more authentic S. Asian LGBT lifestyles? Don't we need to recover and embellish it, rather than hide it like a bad smell? Of course, we can always incorporate the positives of Western gay traditions….bits of Sappho, Plato, Walt Whitman's love of the 'camerado' in his many forms etc.

Saleem Kidwai: Being familiar with our book, you should not be asking me whether I think that our history should be hidden like a bad smell. For me it as intoxicating as the scent of jasmine in summer. As a historian who is gay, recovery of our homo-erotic texts is very important to me. It was also one of the purposes of our book.

As for embellishing it, I think creative gay people have already begun doing that.

I do not think that finding a nourishing history is in any way contradictory to gay bars. Cultural borrowings have happened across history are far more complex and are not isolated decisions. Bars and 'coming-out groups' are not an alternative to the yaar/sakhi tradition which is too deeply entrenched to need intellectual protection. Both can co-exist. In a McWorld, where else would gay men meet? Isnt it important that they are meeting? The gay liberation movement in the West gave many homosexual Indians hope. The trappings had to come with it. But then, trappings are only trappings.

Personally, I identify myself as a gay man and yet celebrate and derive sustenance from our history. I don't see why the gay lifestyle in a Western sense cannot be accepted along with the yaar/sakhi concept. I do not like wasting time on discussing what term we use to refer to our selves. I will go with the most widely recognized and accepted one. I would just as happy to be called a homosexual man, or rangeen mizaaj. Or a husn parast.

Raj Ayyar: As an Indian, a gay intellectual and a Muslim, any comments about the demonization of Islam by the West, especially by the US, since 9/11? Also, about the shameful attempt of right-wing politicians world-wide from Sharon's Israel to the hawks in the BJP leadership in India to jump on the Islam-bashing bandwagon?

Saleem Kidwai: I don't think I could say anything about what is happening in the West that hasn't already been said. And are you surprised that Sharon and the BJP are on the same bandwagon?

Raj Ayyar: Given the negative stereotypes of Islam, your selection of gay and sex-positive Indian Islamic texts in Same Sex is a refreshing counterpoise. You mention Sufism as a powerful influence on gay Islam. Is the Sufi discourse of Lover/Beloved with its delicious trembling romantic ambivalence between the mystical and the fleshly largely responsible for the vast array of same-sex practices and texts in Islam?

There are so many boundary-crossings in these texts, even between the Hinduism of the conquered and the Islam of the conquerors in the medieval period of Indian history. Consider the passion of Hussayn and his Hindu beloved Madho, celebrated in Lahore, Pakistan to this day.

Saleem Kidwai: Sufism was the pre-dominant influence on Islam in India and a major reason for the fairly general acceptance of Islam in India. It influenced almost every aspect of life including, obviously, same-sex 'practices'. Boundaries were crossed all the time and therefore the presumption of a conquering religion and a conquered religion needs to be re-examined.

Yes, the passion of Husayn lives. Last year I was at his urs and I have never been in the vicinity of such male energy - both devotional and erotic.

Raj Ayyar: Could one argue that the great mystical traditions (not the ones that are wholly Puritan-celibate) are expansive and inclusive and therefore less judgmental of sex and sexuality than the 'lower aspects' of religion--the dogma, the fundamentalism and so on?

Salem Kidwai: I think one could easily argue that.

Raj Ayyar: Is it fair to say that there is a tug-of-war between orthodox Islamic homophobia, going back to the Koran and the hadith, and a spirit of same-sex celebration or at least tolerance?

Saleem Kidwai: Yes. The Sufis were attacked by the orthodoxy and not just for their attitude towards same sex love but for most of their beliefs. The orthodox, despite the backing of the state, could not win that battle. Sufism has left its impact which cannot be completely erased in spite of the discomfort of many Muslims today. Those attitudes might be on the retreat for nearly two centuries, but there is no reason why they should be drawn upon to imagine a future.

Raj Ayyar: One of your many research passions is Begum Akhtar. Can you tell us a little about her? And about that wonderful Lucknow tawaif (courtesan) tradition?

Saleem Kidwai: She was a legend not just for her singing but also as a heart breaker. I was lucky to see why.

I was privileged to spend a lot of time with her in the five years before she died in 1974, aged 61. She was intelligent, charming, dignified, gracious, funny, generous and yes, extremely seductive. She wanted to live in a world of romance, fun, liquor and cigarettes of which she smoked over fifty a day. She sang those love lyrics spontaneously and so movingly. She had did not have much patience for rehearsing or regular practice.

If I were a poet, she would have been the only woman I would have written love poetry for.

The courtesan tradition was not entirely a wonderful tradition. Yes, it provided the opportunities for some exceptionally talented women to become legends in their own life times.

Raj Ayyar: How does the tawaif tradition in places like Lucknow tie in with the genre of writing known as 'Rekhti?' What do you make of the criticism leveled against Rekhti by some feminists that it was written by males, however feminized these males were and that as such, its depictions of feminine culture (including lesbianism) are male-biased or, worse yet, written as a form of male pornographic titillation?

Saleem Kidwai: The simple reason is that Rekhti appeared formally in Lucknow in the heyday of the tawaifs. It also conveniently fitted in with the critics dismissal of rekhti (and critics do not include only feminists) as a language of women of 'ill-repute'. Yes, the courtesans must have contributed to this new genre.

We also must keep in mind that these women of 'ill-repute' were also reputed to be masters of language and conversation. As for the interpretations of Rekhti, we have questioned each of those assumptions in our book. Ruth has insightfully elaborated on this in a soon to be published paper. Her response to these criticisms will, I think, raise the level of the discourse from the simplistic level it is stuck in at the moment.

Raj Ayyar: In my various e-exchanges with Ruth Vanita, trying to make sense of Sept. 11 and its horrific aftermath of civil rights suppression, racial profiling and war against a nebulous enemy called 'terror', I have been grappling with the issue: is Islam, even at its androgynous, mystical, inclusive Sufi best, much more androcentric and male-privileging than the mystical traditions of e.g. Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism? Fewer women mystics and writers? What do you think?

Saleem Kidwai: Can I skip this one please. My responses are already too long.

Raj Ayyar: Is there anything else you would like to share with readers of GayToday, with the South Asian readers and the others?

Saleem Kidwai: Well, I have shared so much already. Why not let the readers share something with me. J Reactions to our book would be particularly welcome. They can write to me at saleemk@vsnl.com

Raj Ayyar: Thank you, Saleem. I have enjoyed this duet....

Saleem Kidwai: Its been my pleasure. Thank you, Raj.
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