In Memoriam: Remembering Saleem Kidwai

A pioneering figure in academia and beyond, the recent demise of Saleem Kidwai left the entire nation in grief. Let us take a glimpse into the profound impact left throughout his life – from the queer rights movement in India to literary achievements, friendships, and beyond.

On 30th August 2021, the country was bereft of one of its most celebrated members – Saleem Kidwai – noted author, translator, and queer rights activist. The 70-year-old historian passed away at his Lucknow Residence, leaving a nation’s heart heavy with loss. Kidwai was a student of DU’s own St. Stephen’s College and taught at Ramjas College for almost 20 years before retiring.

But Saleem Sahab wasn’t just revered as a teacher. He was, very visibly, a pioneering voice who mobilised the LGBTQIA+ community in India towards the strive for ‘freedom’, in a world that not only condemned but refused to acknowledge their existence. He was himself a member of this community, one of the very few academics to have openly come out in the then society. According to the words of Shohini Ghosh, his friend, “For many of his contemporaries, homosexuality became more acceptable because it was Saleem who embodied it.”

Best known for his book ‘Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History’, which he co-authored along with Ruth Vanita, many people have spoken of how Saleem’s writing helped India’s queer movement to gather strength. It was nothing short of a landmark in its essence, especially when a copy of the book was given to the judges of the Supreme Court while they heard petitions against Section 377 of the IPC, which criminalised homosexuality. 

But his impact and involvement weren’t solely restricted to matters of academia or justice. Around Kidwai, the queer movement grew into an entire community, and his apartment in the south of Delhi became a place where queer people could socialise and gather together. In the words of his friends, it was a haven for people whose existence was otherwise shunned in every other corner of the country. “For Saleem, as indeed for many of us, there could be no politics of resistance without pleasure,” says Ghosh.

The author-activist was also an enthusiastic collector, evident through the wide selection of books, music, art, and mementos he kept with him. He had collected almost every piece he came across on the subject of same-sex love, jotting down notes and preserving them, as he revealed in an interview post the bringing down of Section 377. These notes and observations were soon to become his most celebrated work in history, none other than the highly acclaimed text ‘Same Sex Love in India’.

Among his other notable works is ‘Shipping Sorrows’, a translation of Qurratulain Hyder’s book ‘Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil’, a coming-of-age tale of six friends from Awadh, as well as The Mirror of Wonders and other tales. He had a lasting impact on almost all the lives he touched. But he shared a very close bond with Agha Shahid Ali and Begum Akhtar, and the trio sat for hours after mehfils to hear Akhtar recount stories and anecdotes. Shahid and Kidwai were already brought together by their families’ relationships and were very close friends since the early 70s.

Agha Shahid Ali and Saleem Kidwai with Begum Akhtar in New Delhi. (Source: Mid-Day India)

Above everything, Kidwai was loved and respected by innumerable friends, family, students, academics, and readers, who have become a living museum of memories for the celebrated author. Sharif D Rangnekar, in his words to the Hindustan Times, remembers his time well spent in the company of Kidwai.

He wasn’t the typical leader, chasing power and status to be on the main stage. He believed bringing people together, listening to them, was far more critical. At least they know they have someone to turn to, to come to, someone who will not judge them.

Sharif D Rangnekar.

Smitha Khorana, who met Saleem Ji as a Fulbright Scholar in Lucknow, recounts how he played an instrumental role in shaping her life – as a friend, mentor and teacher. 

Shohini Ghosh, one of Saleem sir’s close friends and now a professor at Jamia Milia Islamia, in an article to the Wire, gives us some beautiful words were inscribed by Shahid in a book of his poems that he gifted Saleem.

In the City of Gardens

Where the city greens escape us

In the heat

In the dust

But here we are

Reliving losses through words and if only one

Could spend a lifetime with

Each friend

And we have though we haven’t.

To document Saleem Kidwai’s life and lessons in a few hundred (or even thousand) words would be an insufficient exercise in describing the honourable life and legacy that he left us with. As one of his friends expresses his sorrow and says, “It feels like something has ended.” He was but a legendary figure in India’s queer movement, academia, history and society. But more importantly, Kidwai was an exceptional human being whose immeasurable contribution to his students, contemporaries and even the country, will become eternal in the pages of history. 

Feature Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

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Molina Singh

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