Farewell, Saleem Kidwai

The personification of adab and ikhlaq in times of brutal political and social fragmentation, author, translator, historian and the first academic to go public as a member of the LGBTQ community, Saleem Kidwai, who died in Lucknow on August 30, always had time for those in need
Saleem Kidwai at home in Lucknow in a picture dated April 26, 2018. (Anushree Fadnavis/Hindustan Times)
Saleem Kidwai at home in Lucknow in a picture dated April 26, 2018. (Anushree Fadnavis/Hindustan Times)
Updated on Aug 30, 2021 09:54 PM IST
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By Mehru Jaffer

My friend Saleem Kidwai is no more. He was precious for his old world ways. Gentle, reflective and a person in love with learning, his presence in Lucknow was a living example of adab and ikhlaq in times of brutal political and social fragmentation.

The absolute necessity of the practice of adab and ikhlaq by the elite of the city is what made Lucknow different from other cities. It took centuries for the architects of civilization to perfect practices like proper social conduct or adab, and awareness of the ethical and moral aspects of life or akhlaq in both the private and public space.

The practitioner of adab was adib, an individual with a deep interest in knowing more about history, poetry, ideas and language. These practices were once dear to the elite, and were the real currency of those in power.

Even until a few decades ago, citizens were aware of adab and its social and political significance for both people of learning, and people in power, who were often one and the same and considered worthy of emulation by the rest of the citizens.

Saleem’s last conversation with me was about the disappearance of adab and akhlaq from both the private and public lives of people who matter in the city. Sometimes I felt he found it hellish to be alive today.

He did not know how to deal with slogans he heard like, “Maareinge, maareinge; kaateinge kaateinge”.

Of late, he preferred to spend more and more time in his home which resembled Alladin’s cave, a treasure house full of books. Up a flight of narrow stairs, the 21st century was waved goodbye at his home in Lucknow’s Mahanagar neighbourhood. Past his front door, a cosy living room in polished wood furniture was revealed and a study in muted earth colours as if from Victorian times. The delight of conversing with Saleem in that sepia-toned environment is something that I will miss till my dying day. He was fond of food and served great Lakhnawi recipes. Soofi, his sister lives on the first floor and runs a home-cooked catering service called Sarwari’s Kitchen. A great host, Saleem’s glass was always full, his plate piled with delicacies like the Lakhnawi murg musallam even as his conversations were laced with deep reflection upon the state of the world.

Born in 1951 in an eminent family of landlords in Baragaon, Barabanki, on the outskirts of Lucknow, Saleem Kidwai studied and worked in Delhi and Canada, but Lucknow is where he always wanted to be. After teaching for two decades in Delhi he took early retirement and returned to Lucknow to continue to read, write and to play with his dogs. He enjoyed being with his loved ones in a house with a garden and terraces. He found the idea of living in an apartment claustrophobic, he would say.

Only recently, he had built a glass house in a corner of the terrace where one could sip coffee with him in winter sunshine and in rain, endlessly discussing the many concerns of the day.

There is a long tradition among the Kidwais of balancing personal and social concerns. In the feudal culture of landlordism, children of the house first received moral education at home and modern education at a formal institution as adults. The Kidwais have been living in the lush countryside of Barabanki since the 18th century. Due to a long tradition of learning and self reflection, there have been many sufis in the family and many important politicians, lawyers, intellectuals and literati among both men and women. Many members of the Kidwai family were at the forefront of the freedom struggle.

Cast in the same mould, Saleem Kidwai thought it was his moral responsibility to go public as a member of the LGBTQ community. He was the first academic to do so. His concern was for all those who were afraid and filled with guilt because they are gay. He spent time counselling many youngsters confused about their sexuality, and always had time for those who needed to talk to him.

Academic Ruth Vanita’s book, Gender, Sex and the City, is dedicated to Saleem, who co-authored Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History with her.

While in Lucknow, he searched the archives for interesting literature about Avadh and its people in Urdu, and wanted to translate it all into English. What a marvellous English translation he has left us of Qurratulain Hyder’s Urdu novel Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil (1952) in Ship of Sorrows.

Saleem’s last message to me was that the lockdown was taking a toll on him, and that he was lonely and restless.

Rest in Peace, Saleem Kidwai.

Mehru Jaffer is an author and journalist. She lives in Lucknow. Her latest book is Shadow of the Past (Aleph).

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Thursday, October 21, 2021