By Harihar Swarup
It is hard to pack life into words. If we must, the life of Saleem Kidwai could be encapsulated in these words—kindness, generosity, and love. Many knew him as a scholar, arguably India’s finest queer activist and writer, and authority on Urdu ghazals. He was all those but most impo importantly, he was generous, wise and loving friend for those whose lives he touched.
One of his lady follower says she remembers the time he started “calling me mausi (aunt), an epithet to his obsession with Meena Kumari and the cringe worthy drama that I enacted all the time in his home”. His understanding of wit and sarcasm were legendary. “A close friendship developed, where we shared not only our adventures but love for poetry and music, building bond of deep affection and camaraderie”.
While born-and-bred in Lucknow, Saleem came to adulthood in Delhi where he taught at Ramjas college. His parties and hospitality were renewed. His love for poetry and music was well-known. However, most precious, was his reliable friendship.
Few knew that he was unable to defend his PhD at McGill University because he had been arrested in a gay bar and could not go back to Montreal. Even fewer knew of sacrifices he made, as an openly gay man to stand among a generation of gay men who had but two choices—either to leave India or get married. This is why to know him was to know courage and integrity.
Saleem was a giant in academia and his work not only on same-sex love but medieval history and, particularly, on the tawaifs (prostitutes) was incomparable. He knew Akhtari Bai and Mallika Pukhraj personally. Of these to Akhtari, he was like a son. A follower says “We spent evenings and nights discussing the merits of Rasoolan Bai, Akhatri and Pukhraj over tea. He patiently explained the Urdu couplet, from Mir and Ghalib and Faiz. His translation of Pukhraj’s memoirs remains retelling of the tawaif story like no other. This earned him a fan following across the border”.
“I was singularly”, says the follower, “struck by his large-heartedness and ability to help in a crisis. He never gave up when so many others did. His single-minded devotion to fairness, equality and inclusion was remarkable. His vision of ishq (love), like the poetry he loved, was intense and deep. It included not only romantic ishq but friendships that sustained over decades through nurturing”.
Saleem’s friends and peers regularly borrowed his ideas and repeated them as their own but to him, it was a minor lapse. A kathak dancer, a wannabe historian, once turned up at his doorstep in Lucknow when a friend was visiting. The friend told him, “she (Kathak dancer) is going to steal every idea without giving a shred of credit.” Saleem smiled and said, “let her, it’s just knowledge.”
The friend said “my fondest memories of him are from when we worked together to establish gay group in Delhi. We would often bicker but Saleem’s kindness, patience, experience and learning showed us the way. He taught us and raised us, even though we were often deficient pupils”.
With his passing away, “we are trapped in this unbearable loss. As his queer family, We have no closure. We sit on aisle of memory, hoping that we may untangle and fathom our loss”. (IPA Service)