The devotees sit crosslegged in the tomb not eating the food laid before them, plates glossy pink and turmeric yellow with papaya and daal. The tile is khichri-slippery, and I have forgotten it is Ramadan. The Dargah of Sufi saint Nizaamuddin Auliya, a labrynthine complex open to the sky, shivers with a crowd: disciplined worshippers at a feast uneaten, as though laid out for ghosts. But they are vibrantly fleshy, minding babies and gesticulating as they wait for the siren signalling iftar to tumble down. I snake into a bulging queue with a combination of elbows and sweet talk, half propelled by the crowd and half propelling, until I am spat out, salty and sweating, at the tomb of Amir Khusrau.
Now there is Grindr, and before Grindr there was Yahoo, but before Yahoo—much before Yahoo—there was the bazaar. There are different myths in circulation about who imported homosexuality into India: some say the Britishers; others, through hard porn and soft imperialism, America. But for those whose proclivities tend toward the Hindu nationalist, there is always the option of blaming Islam. Of course, the evidence that homoeroticism was present on the subcontinent far before the medieval period is abundant—but in the paranoid, anachronistic tally of sexual sin, the Persian and Urdu poetic tradition in India, largely Islamicate, deserves a special shout out. And the tradition itself has a special place in its heart and loins for love between sweet-talking men and cruel, fuzzy-lipped boys.
Amir Khusrau, twelfth century Persian and Hindavi poet, was himself a great connoisseur of bazaar culture—or at least, his poetic speaker was. A sufi himself and a devotee of Nizamuddin, Khusrau is memorialized next to his teacher. That’s why he’s here, and that’s why I’m here, too, standing in front of his tomb on a smoky Thursday evening as parched dust eddies where the lazy breeze gestures, head bowed against the poet-saint’s tomb. It’s a slow night, acrid with kabob smoke and rain-longing, and I am feeling macerated with unrequited love. The pain of the beloved in Khusrau’s brand of poetry is less the cruelty of the forbidden than that of the unreciprocated, the heartsore: aloof queer girls with hair wound long like chains, eyelashes, lethally, Maybelline sharp.
Ah me, shackled to your every strand of hair.
But in Khusrau’s poetic universe, sharp-eyelashed women aren’t the only ones cutting through the defenses of hapless lovers; there’s also the pain of barely-bearded boys. “The flourishing towns and markets created a culture of the streets based on interaction between men,” writes Saleem Kidwai in his and Ruth Vanita’s seminal anthology on same-sex love in Indian literary and cultural history. “In these bazaars men from different classes, castes and communities mingled; here homoerotically inclined men met and established relations” (108). There are still cruising grounds in Delhi—humid parks lush green in the early evening—but cruising, I am told, is an affair increasingly separated by class. As in America, the sexual marketplace has moved online, and those who can take to the internet, do. The risk, however, remains stark. It’s common to hear stories of extortion or kidnapping, of police posing as potential partners then blackmailing instead. The recent reinstatement of Indian Penal Code 377 has only aided the threat.
Kidwai’s analysis of bazaar culture and how it surfaces in poetry has its critics, as does the entire reclamatory project of the same-sex, the homoerotic, the queer. How can one make a genealogy of definitionally unstable categories like gender—categories that don’t necessarily apply to the historical periods in question? Yet the rallying cry against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is that it’s un-Indian; the very weapon used against queers is twistedly historical. In this context, then, it is powerful to claim a line.
Evening topples onto the Dargah suddenly. At the siren the crowd glimmers, wakes and stirs; hands and mouths grow newly busy, and food disappears into burnt edges of roti and slick mango skins. Then everyone’s standing, shifting, fixing their kurtas, pushing for the exit, and I drift with the crowd away from Khusrau toward Nizamuddin’s tomb. When the call to prayer blows in like a fresh wind we are all buffeted by it; it sweeps the crowd. Then suddenly the Dargah is almost empty: a few swaying worshippers, a mucky open floor. The Qawwali singers, six or seven men in kurta pajama, are setting up shop.
Khusrau—notoriously virile— is considered the father of a lot of things: the tabla, the sitar, and the qawwali, the genre of devotional Sufi song. As in much Persian and Urdu poetry, in Khusrau’s work, religious devotion and secular sexiness get all mixed up. Yearning for the human lover becomes yearning for the divine, and vice versa; consummation, in both cases, is almost never reached. The longing for God is erotic, and it is a genderfuck.
I am enslaved by that face
no one’s allowed to see,
driven mad by ringlets
no one’s allowed to touch…
whether I look at him or not
I don’t have long to live.
When the music starts, it rips through the air like a sudden rain, hot and loud. The vocals tear from the singers’ throat with fullness: the way relatives’ faces ballast with tears at weddings, or my mother’s expression when she says she misses me terribly and wants the summer to fly to my return. It is a benevolence bulging with longing, a turgid cell, a fish that has gorged itself to its own exploding, a body narcotic with love.
When the musicians finish, I feel as though I have been stood up: standing all hopeful in pink lipstick waiting for a girlfriend, but nobody’s come.
It was winter when I got my Khusrau copy, a dry and dusty season, headachey with studying and tiredness, sunlight weak and apartment cold. This was right after the court ruling came out about 377, and my friends were going to protests and talking angry and buying up multiple papers each morning to analyze what they are saying about us. Meanwhile, I was leaving Delhi in a haze of love.
Delhi and its fine lads
With their turbans and twisted beards
Openly drinking lovers’ blood
While secretly sipping wine.
This is the real queer stuff, my friends indicated, handing me a copy of Khusrau, a copy of Ghalib before I ran for the airport-bound cab.
These cheeky, simple Indian lads have made
Muslims into worshippers of the sun.
I read the Khusrau as the plane ascended. In the front of the book, because this is the age of Grindr, the beautiful Delhi boys had written a couple stanzas of Shakira lyrics—that other great queer poet—and I laughed as we leapt into the air.
Trapped in the coils of their curly locks
Khusrau is a dog on a leash.