Amir Khusrau and his spiritual master Nizamuddin were in love, many sources say…

… Delhi Metro: I recently saw two young men on the train, in their late teens or early twenties, with the good looks and innocence that might appeal to a casting director for a breakfast cereal commercial. They were smartly dressed but evidence of their profession, painting, was spattered in their hair and caked in their fingernails. They carried their paint-stiffened work clothes in plastic bags. What was notable but also perfectly mundane was that their hands were clasped around the same hold, as though a single person’s left and right hands.

In an Anglo-American context, the only explanation for this intimacy would be that the two men were lovers.

In India, it does not signal that at all. First-time visitors to Delhi from the West often declare to me wide-eyed that “India is really liberal when it comes to homosexuality”. They have this impression because male friendship, especially the further away from wealth and English-medium education one looks, tends to be much more physical in India than in the West.

Opinions on sexual morality in modern India, of course, run the gamut from urban swingers to renunciate sadhus, and they are far more complex and varied than what one sees in the West. For all anyone knows, the two men on the train might have been lovers, their secret protected by the very fact that no one would have suspected it.

We can trace some of the complexity in Indian sexual mores today into history. In Muslim-ruled, pre-modern South Asia, same-sex love as such was not forbidden – but it was feared by some because it could lead to certain kinds of sexual acts, which were at least technically forbidden.

The main benefit of a gay relationship was that, unlike a heterosexual one, it could be carried on publicly.

Women were excluded from most public gatherings, and in a society that treated female virginity as a commodity, there was no concept of marriage as a partnership. On the other hand, close male bonds had a long and storied history.

Perso-Islamic views on love are derived both from the Greek tradition and from ancient Iranian custom. The saqi, or wine cup-bearer at a party, had inevitably been portrayed as a handsome youth from the beginning of Persian poetry and there are many famous descriptions of saqis.

In the pre-colonial period, same-sex desire was not simply decadence. The mid-eighteenth century Muraqqa-i-Dihli (The Delhi Album) is a catalogue of not only great poets and men of taste but of rent-boys and dancing girls. This was a society obsessed with protocol, so the inclusion of such people meant they had a social role.

The dancing boys and girls play-acted at being sexually available and this was publicly sanctioned. However, for the physical act to be consummated and then discussed was no doubt a matter of concern. Even under the most liberal interpretations of Islamic law, sodomy is criminal. However, it is significant that the Hanafi school of the law, by far the most common interpretation of Islamic law in South and Central Asia, is unique among the four schools in not considering sodomy (liwatat) to be in the category of crimes requiring serious punishment (hadd). In any case, love was public and sex obviously was not. From our perspective, there seems to have been a naïve separation of the two.

Those who claim that “Western values” are destroying traditional morality in India would do everyone a favour if they learnt about the role of colonialism and the West in shaping those “traditional” values in the first place.

Sexuality in Indian literature, both from the Sanskrit tradition and the Persian-Urdu one, created deep discomfort in the West and resulted in ridiculous interpretations and mistranslations of texts. It was a common practice to translate racy passages into Latin instead of English so that only educated (and presumably serious-minded) people would be able to understand them. Very dirty passages were rendered into ancient Greek so that even fewer English readers would have understood.

More to the point, same-sex love was medicalised in the West during the nineteenth century. The term “homosexuality” was coined to categorise same-sex desire as a disease that could be treated, although few psychologists in the Western world still believe this. Such a dim view of sex was exported to the colonial empires and found expression in the Indian Penal Code’s section 377 on “crimes against the order of nature”.

The legacy of this Victorian attempt to stamp out sexuality everywhere presents obstacles to furthering the cause of human rights in India.

As the American essayist H. L. Mencken wrote, Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Unfortunately, those who study Persian generally take our literature too seriously, and we often find our understanding of the texts shaped by editors who were more conservative than the writers themselves. For example, take Masud-i Sad-i Salman and his wonderful poem about a cross-eyed boy. It includes the line:

shudah bar-i digar kasi ham juft
kardah ba digari mara tu badal
(Once again you have coupled with another,
you mistook someone else for me.)

For Masud, love and sex could be comical. Also consider that Zikr-i-Mir (Speaking of Mir), a prose work by the Persian and Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir (1723 – 1810), generally thought to be a serious and spiritual man, ends with pages of jokes about sodomy, particularly involving Pathans. Ubaid Zakani is known as a competent ghazal poet and political satirist but many Persian scholars will admit a guilty pleasure in reading his other satires, which are full of jokes about sodomy, flatulence and other unmentionables.

Even Khusrau has some poems which we might describe as pornographic. The filtering effect of history makes it easy to forget that there was a whole range of poetic activities, some of them quite risqué, available to a living tradition. Prudish editors of every generation try to deny that our forebears had a bit of fun, but to understand the lived experience of a literary culture, we need to know what we would describe as its seamy side as well.

Excerpted with permission from Delhi: Pages from a Forgotten History, Arthur Dudney, Hay House India.