A tribute to Saleem Kidwai, a man who made a real contribution to India’s LGBTQ community
On Monday, August 30, when I received a message from my dear friend, author, poet and advocate, Dr Saif Mahmood, that Saleem Kidwai is no more, I was in shock. Saleem and I had been in touch just the week before, planning a long conversation or guftagu over the coming weekend to discuss politics, love and life.
Saif, of course, was devastated, as Saleem and he had exchanged messages two days earlier. Their friendship dated back several decades, finding literature, history, Sufism and legendary poets and artists such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Iqbal Bano, Malika Pukhraj and Begum Akhtar, as common interests.
In my case, it was homosexuality that we connected on.
It was on August 28, 1999, a little over 22 years ago, when I first met Saleem at a gay group meeting called Humrahi held at Anjali Gopalan’s Naz Foundation office in Delhi. I had just “come out” and was trying to find a place for myself among the small number of young gay men, most of whom, like me, were seeking an identity and legitimacy that law and society had denied us.
Even though Saleem was a tall scholar and a respected professor at the University of Delhi, he never let his professional stature come in the way of his personal pursuits of defeating the “homophobia project”. He believed literature and history had its role to play and being a “chronicler” of lives and times, engaging with people was innate to him. “I enjoy it,” he had told me.
Hence, he was approachable to anyone, instinctively socially mobile, believing in shared values and that conversations and engagement could lead to a common thread, a more empathetic world.
So it was natural for him to keep his rented accommodation in Anand Lok open to all of us. While listening to his stories, we’d unhesitatingly sit for hours quietly rummaging through his library-like bookshelves without a care of time or his need for privacy. He would even “hand over the keys to his home”, reminisces our mutual friend, lawyer and activist, Aditya Bandyopadhyay, “knowing how his vast collection of books and journals was a treasure trove for me”.
Even if Saleem saw himself “only” as an intellectual, historian and teacher and not an activist taking to the streets, coining slogans, he was one. “His stature of scholarliness that he brought to the young movement then,” gave us a sense of self and identity,” recalls the author and activist, Maya Sharma. And his sheer “aesthetics, sensitivity and ability to empathise” made him a real icon of sorts, she says.
Yet, he wasn’t the typical leader, chasing power and status to be on the main stage.
He was driven by the urge to bring about the empowerment of the community rather than by a hankering for the trappings of power. He didn’t impose a singular way or route for us to achieve freedom from the colonial law of Section 377. He believed bringing people together, listening to them, was far more critical. “At least they know they have someone to turn to, to come to, someone who will not judge them,” he told me.
While Saleem himself proclaimed his “very liberal” political outlook on Facebook, Anjali felt his humility was why he was so special. In the early years of Naz Foundation, “he was one of the people manning our helplines with Jivi Sethi,” the last thing you’d expect of such a lettered man, she recalls. He’d even make himself available at the drop of a hat, providing immediate counsel if someone was in trouble. He’d offer to talk to parents and meet them, as he laughingly said, age and education was respected in most homes, and the “old man in the room” (himself) was aging enough and a professor!
Saleem, of course, was aware of gay life in India as well as what it was to be gay in the West during the 1970s and 1980s. He had once faced the horror of being picked up by the Canadian police that raided a gay bar when the law was against homosexuality. So, as he told me, he had an indication of the conflicts that an emerging gay night life can face in a slowly evolving India where everything was against us.
His pursuit to make a difference was not limited to his interactions within the community, it led him to co-edit Same-Sex Love in India with Ruth Vanita. While the book was bound to be contentious, he seemed least bothered. But according to the senior lawyer, Anand Grover, the book “became a bible for those of us fighting to get rid of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).” And as history had it, his work with Ruth found its way into the verdict of September 6, 2018 that read down Section 377!
Yet, Saleem never showed any sign of ego or arrogance given his well-established contribution to our lives, directly or otherwise. He still kept an open house in Lucknow, insisting we stay with him, even asking me to bring my mother along “as there is enough room, food and drinks” to keep us alive.
Over the past few years, Saleem and I spoke more often and even met in Lucknow in February 2019. We were at a queer function where he invited Maya, the author, Nighat Gandhi and journalist Anant Zanane and me over for dinner. He was in his elements, talking about the 1990s, the movement, lust and pleasure, history and politics. He had arranged the best of meat and quality alcohol, quietly telling me that the meat and alcohol was the ‘only’ perfect marriage, “where one completes the other”.
Of course, Saleem was single and never expressed any disappointment at being so. While he supported the “old gay liberation politics” that were pro love and freedom and not marriage, he never ridiculed anyone who chose matrimony. Perhaps his singlehood allowed him to share love in a manner that touched many of our lives, leaving us with unforgettable memories.
Through the pandemic, the frequency of conversations with Saleem increased as we checked on each other. If there was anything that bothered him, it was the growing Islamophobia, ageism and body shaming, all of which had entered the queer world. “Sociability has diminished, people rejecting each other over a word, a picture,” he observed in disgust, indicating that human rights were now far more complex than earlier.
Still, Saleem, a victim of this change, kept his phone and home open to people on either side of the ideological divide, queer or straight, although reluctant to engage with hate mongers. He didn’t wish to change as a person just because the politics of our time or the media was somewhat unrecognisable. If we stop talking, asking questions, sharing our views, reassuring each other, “we’d be irresponsible too”, he had said, reminding us of his undying courage.
I often wondered how to describe him, his nature or character or how to define his contribution to our lives, and to my mind.
Saif says there are two words in Urdu – khuloos and wazadaari – that are “inextricably intertwined with the definition of sharaafat.” While khuloos, “is typified by genuineness and sincerity and an underlying element of lovingness and warmth, wazadaari entails a certain enduring attachment to one’s social values.” Saleem epitomised both, he explains, adding that he was “a living embodiment of Awadhi tehzeeb,” and a person I would never wish to forget!
Sharif D Rangnekar is an author and the Festival Director, Rainbow Lit Fest.