Saleem Kidwai, scholar who unearthed long-buried literature on gay love in India, dies at 70

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Saleem Kidwai in a Facebook post dated November 24, 2018. Photo: Facebook

Saleem Kidwai, independent researcher and co-editor of a transformative anthology who recovered long-lost and buried writings on homosexual love in Indian literature from ancient Sanskrit texts to poetry of the Mughal era and the short stories set in college dorms during the 1970s, died on August 30 in a hospital in Lucknow, India. He was 70 years old.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said Ruth Vanita, professor of literature at the University of Montana and co-editor with Kidwai of the 2000 volume “Same-Sex Love in India: Readings From Literature and History”.

From a prominent Muslim family, Kidwai rose to prominence in Delhi’s LGBTQ community with the publication of “Same-Sex Love in India”. The book has been widely regarded as a founding text for queer studies in India and has been cited in hearings before the country’s Supreme Court, which ended the criminalization of homosexuality in 2018.

“Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita were the ammunition for us to defend our history and how was our culture and how to recover it,” said Anand Grover, one of the lawyers who led the case for the repeal of the article. 377 of Indian law. Criminal Code, under which homosexuality was illegal.

This change helped change the public atmosphere in which judges would eventually render their decision, Grover said.

“The mainstream story and for the vast majority of people the thought was that Section 377 is part of our culture, and they had no idea that before the British it was a different ball game,” he added.

“Same-sex love in India” was a sweeping historical correction that sought to reclaim a rich repository of poetry and fiction celebrating romantic attachments that had been deliberately ignored.

When Kidwai and Vanita launched their project in the early 1990s, much of the Indian academy, political establishment, and social elite rejected homosexuality as a foreign import from the West and an affront. to Indian culture and society.

“Back when the book was first published, homophobic cultural nationalists routinely claimed that homosexuality had never been part of Indian tradition,” wrote Shohini Ghosh, professor at the Center for Research on Human Rights. AJK mass communication in India, in an email. “It opened the eyes of many, while for others it confirmed that queer love and its many manifestations have a long and vibrant history in South Asia.”

Kidwai and Vanita first met when they were both lecturers at Delhi University – albeit in different colleges and disciplines. Kidwai was an associate professor of medieval and Mughal history at Ramjas College; Vanita taught literature.

Independently, they had collected texts describing same-sex attraction and love from their readings, Kidwai in Urdu and Persian, Vanita in Sanskrit and other languages. “As you read, you would find a lot of things that would strike you and your gaydar would start to sting,” Kidwai later told Project Bolo, a collection of oral histories documenting the gay community in India. “Ruth and I had done similar things. “

Queer studies didn’t really exist as a discipline in India at the time. In Indian media, gay and lesbian couples, when they first appeared, were mostly confined to the category of tragic circumstances – doomed love that ends, for example, in double rat death suicide. or self-immolation.

Even the private references were oblique. As Kidwai loved to relate, gossip dissecting the end of a marriage might mention that the man was powerless, but only with women.

Until the 2018 court ruling, homosexuality was punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The anti-sodomy law, imposed by the British in India in 1861, was used to blackmail men who attempted to meet men for sex in public parks and, during the height of the AIDS crisis, to block the distribution of condoms in Indian prisons.

There were no gay bars or nightclubs in Delhi. Meetings were organized surreptitiously, for example by leaving a red rose on a coffee table to signal that it was possible to approach safely.

Kidwai had quit his teaching post at Delhi University in 1993, and there were no large grants or institutional support for a project like this when he and Vanita embarked on the book. . The two academics struggled to find a publisher, publishing the book first through an American printing house in 2000 and releasing an Indian version a year later.

In the two decades since its publication, “Same-Sex Love in India” underwent 19 impressions.

“By translating the literature on homosexual love from 15 Indian languages ​​composed over more than 2,000 years, the book challenged the modern homophobic idea that homosexuality was a foreign import,” Vanita said. “Homosexuality was not a foreign import. Homophobia was.

Kidwai was born on August 7, 1951 into a large clan of landowners in Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. He moved to Delhi at age 17, allegedly to study history at Delhi University, but also because he realized that Indian life in a small town would be too restrictive for a gay man.

He obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history and started teaching at the University of Delhi in 1973.

He was granted leave from university in 1976 to pursue doctoral studies at McGill University in Montreal. On a terrifying evening in October 1977, Kidwai was among some 150 men arrested in an armed police raid on two gay bars in Montreal. The men were subjected to mandatory DV testing and threatened with criminal prosecution.

The raids sparked massive street protests the next day, and months later Quebec banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. (However, the criminal charges weren’t dropped for years.)

At that point, traumatized by his arrest, periodic court appearances and the constant threat of deportation, and disillusioned with living openly as a gay man in the West, Kidwai fled Montreal and its program. doctorate to return to his academic work as an associate. professor of history in Delhi.

He was open about his sexuality with his family and close friends, a circle that expanded even more quickly after leaving academia once he became eligible for voluntary retirement. In the 1990s, he became increasingly active in Delhi’s gay community, where he was constantly in demand on conferences and TV shows.

After returning to Lucknow about two decades ago, he worked with television producers on a documentary about the late singer and actress Begum Akhtar. He also published English translations of Urdu novels and a dissertation, and he entertained a constant crowd of visiting Indian and Western scholars, eager to tap Kidwai’s vast knowledge of the Mughal Empire, classical music. Hindustani and Urdu literature.

The survivors include three sisters.

Asked by a Project Bolo interviewer if he had any regrets in life, Kidwai replied wryly: “If I were to believe in rebirth, I would be born gay. Believe it or not. . . . I am not a masochist but I had fun.

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