The death of historian Saleem Kidwai is an irreparable loss to queer scholarship in India. Kidwai was co-author with Ruth Vanita of the seminal book Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. Although Indian editions of the book are available today, Indian publishers shied away from publishing the book when it was first offered to them at the turn of the century, believing it to be explosive. Hence it was brought out by St Martin’s Press, an American academic press.

Eventually, however, the book proved to be so influential that it was even presented as evidence when the Delhi High Court, and later the Supreme Court, heard petitions for the abolition of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that made homosexuality illegal. Today, no course on LGBT Studies in Indian universities is complete without an inclusion of Same Sex Love in India on the syllabus.

The book is (or should be) an eye-opener to ignorant politicians who think that homosexuality is a western import, and is against Indian culture. An important lesson that the book teaches us is that same-sex love was never criminalised in pre-colonial India. It was Lord TB Macaulay who criminalised it in 1860.

Controversial claims

Kidwai himself dealt with those parts of the book which were about the practice and representation of homosexual love in the Persian, Arabic and Urdu traditions of pre-colonial India. Naturally, this concerned Islam as a religion, and made some of Kidwai’s claims controversial and open to debate.

In Kidwai’s words, “Homoerotically inclined men are continuously visible in Muslim medieval histories and are generally described without pejorative comment.” Eunuchs, together with slaves, comprised a large part of the harems and brothels that existed in the towns. Wine was served in the taverns of the time, but Kidwai says it is “inaccurate” to depict the wine-server always as a woman, for young boys were also employed in these drinking establishments.

Men pursued beardless young boys, known as laundas, and their prurient act came to be known as laundebaazi. This was perhaps similar to the man-boy love that existed in ancient Greece and Rome.

Kidwai points out that though the Quran and the Shariah condemn sodomy in no uncertain terms, and describe it as a crime for which the punishment is death by stoning, in actual practice offenders were rarely punished as it was very difficult to prove their crime, which required corroboration by eye-witnesses. Consenting homosexuals were thus easily able to evade the law. Some scholars, according to Kidwai, are even able to cite passages from the Quran that state that beautiful boys are promised to the virtuous in heaven.

To Kidwai, Sufism became an alibi for the expression of same-sex love. “In Sufi literature the relationship between the divine and the human was often expressed in homoerotic metaphors,” he writes. “Many Sufis insisted that only same-gender love could transcend sex, and therefore not distract the seeker.”

Then there was poetry. Kidwai informs us that in the Persian ghazal, the poets assumed a male voice that addressed a male beloved. Likewise, in Rekhti poetry, male poets assumed a female voice and wrote love poems to other women. He also says that there is a large body of homoerotic poetry in Urdu, of which the poems of Abru and Mir Taqi Mir are the most explicit. Abru, especially, has been described by the critic Nurul Hasan Hashmi as “the chief of the boy-worshippers”.

Resistance to social control

In these poems, the poets openly admit their attraction to boys, and recount their experiences of pleasure, desire, longing and heartbreak. In medieval India, sexual alterity, says Kidwai, was not considered a form of resistance to social control.

Kidwai himself translates one of Abru’s longer poems, some lines of which are as follows:

All at once, I saw a real beauty I lost my heart to him instantly
How shall I paint his picture with what art? He was a dream to subjugate the heart.
Those eyes, those brows, that softly glowing face Each part of him a captivating grace.
His body soft, his face smooth and pure, magnetized me with a strange allure.

If this was Kidwai the historian and translator, what about Kidwai the man? I knew him personally. In 2007, when Thomas Waugh of Concordia University, Montreal, and I jointly organised a conference on Gay Cinema and Literature at the University of Pune where I taught, Saleem Kidwai readily accepted our invitation and came to the conference, where he read an insightful paper.

When I expressed despair at the conference about how difficult it was to be openly gay in India (the Delhi High Court ruling that read down Section 377 was still two years away), Kidwai attempted to infuse a measure of optimism in me. He pointed out that the fact that I was able to hold a gay conference in my university proved that it wasn’t so bad after all.

Exactly nine years later, I met Kidwai again, this time at the Lucknow Literature Festival where both of us were panellists. Kidwai had moved from Delhi to Lucknow by then, and he lived alone in a large house surrounded by books. I found him to be even more soft-spoken and reclusive than he was in 2007.

What gives me goose bumps, however, is the fact that I corresponded with Kidwai just three days before his death. This was in connection with a blurb that I wanted him to write for my forthcoming novel Mahmud and Ayaz. It was through Kidwai’s work that I first got to know about the legendary love affair of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni and his Turkish slave lover, Ayaz.

When I used the story as the backdrop to my novel, I couldn’t think of anyone other than Kidwai to write the blurb. Kidwai agreed, but said he was unwell, and would write the blurb later. Did I know then that the illness of which he spoke would take his life just three days later? As I write this tribute, I realise suddenly that perhaps all our days are numbered and none of us can take life for granted.

In his 2019 book Gay Icons of India, the poet Hoshang Merchant rightly calls Saleem Kidwai “indisputably the intellectual voice of India’s gay history, especially its Urdu literature and Muslim life,” and refers to his “courtly manners”. He also says that Kidwai is “still very attractive to young men.”

Undoubtedly, Kidwai’s passing has left a vacuum that no one can fill, at least for a long time to come. India’s LGBT community is rife with activists, poets, writers, academics, filmmakers and lawyers. But if there is one thing that we lack, it is historians. Let us hope that there is someone who will emerge who can continue with Saleem Kidwai’s legacy and take it forward.

R Raj Rao’s novel Mahmud and Ayaz is to be published by Speaking Tiger in 2022.