A Ramble Through Delhi’s Queer History, Told Through Monuments And Subcultures
A heritage walk looks at the capital city’s historic and contemporary spaces through the queer lens, revealing some less known insights
What is it like to explore a city like Delhi, dense with monuments, as you hear its history being recounted through a queer lens? This is what heritage walk guide Iqbal Ali is trying to explore – examine its Mughal ruins, excavate long-forgotten histories, and draw upon lived experiences to construct an alternative history.
It is a drizzly June morning as I arrive at the Jama Masjid metro station where Ali and a small group of enthusiasts have already congregated. It is Pride Month, and all of us are curious to know about this “queer” heritage walk that they had announced on Instagram.
Ali makes for a great guide to the city’s queer corners – they combine the ease of a schoolteacher with the wisdom of a scholar. Our first halt is at the Sunehri Masjid or the Golden Mosque near the Red Fort. A plaque at the monument states some bare bone facts: “This mosque was built in A.D 1751 by Qudsiya Begum, mistress of Muhammad Shah and mother of Ahmad Shah…”
What the plaque does not tell us, says Ali, is the other story the structure holds – of the power wielded by the community of khwajasarahs, trans persons who were an integral part of the Mughal court but find little place in the mainstream telling of history. “Javed Khan urf Nawab Bahadur, who was the right hand man of Queen Qudsiya Begum, and a khawajasarah, was the one who led the building operations,” Ali points out.
What pushed Ali into exploring Delhi’s queer history and sharing it with others? First, they say, the fact that India still dismisses queerness as a “Western concept” antithetical to Indian culture. “I hold these walks to subvert the narrative that queerness doesn’t exist in India. Through these monuments I want to show fellow queer people that this city is also shaped by people like us in history,” says Ali, who identifies as a non-binary trans person.
Second, because queerness can be a very isolating experience, further exacerbated by right-wing rhetoric questioning its validity, they say. Queer and gender non-conforming people are often estranged from their biological families. The walks are a way to work past this social and familial isolation, says Ali.
An Alternate History
There is a reason why alternative narratives in history are popular. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart retells the history of colonial invasion in Nigeria to counter the white-washed depiction of it in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence relooked Partition for its disproportionate impact on women. Then there is the very queer history of New York city detailed in Audre Lorde’s autobiography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.
At the Sunehri Masjid, Ali cites several historians to recount the fascinating dynamic between Qudsiya Begum and Javed Khan. Jadunath Sarkar in his book, Fall of the Mughal Empire, writes of Ahmed Shah’s succession to the throne after the death of the 13th Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah. But it was Qudsiya Begum along with Javed Khan, who were the true centres of power, so much so that rumours of them being lovers were abound in the empire.
We then navigate the busy bylanes of Old Delhi’s Meena Bazar and head towards the gated tomb of India’s first education minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. It is a place of contrasts – outside, the city rages with traffic and a sea of bodies but inside it is quiet and lush. The premises are closed to visitors but Ali’s disarming camaraderie gets us an entry.
It was Azad’s wish, says Ali, to be buried next to the Jama Masjid. “Just like Sarmad,” they add.
Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed was a Jewish Armenian merchant who came to India from Safavid Persia in the 17th century and fell in love with a Hindu boy, Abhay Chand. “For queer people, he is the saint of love,” says Ali. A convert to Islam, Sarmad eventually rose to become one of the most revered Sufi saints in the northern Indian subcontinent but he was beheaded by Aurangzeb on grounds of heresy.
We are curious – exactly how does Azad’s tomb fit into Ali’s curation?
“Azad drew a lot of inspiration from Sarmad in his lifetime. Which is why it is fascinating to me that Azad, who must have known about Sarmad’s queerness, continued to follow him. It says a lot about Azad, and also Islam,” observes Ali. Azad who wrote an essay on Sarmad, Hayat-e-Sarmad, saw in the martyr’s life, “a mirror of his own life”, writes historian VN Dutta in his book Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Sarmad. Azad believed that Sarmad’s relationship with Chand was not one of “reprehensible carnal desire, but [of] pure love”. In refusing to dismiss Sarmad’s love for Abhay Chand, Azad becomes an ally for many queer Muslims.
The NCERT recently deleted an entire chapter related to the Mughal Empire from its Class XII history books. All references to Azad too have been deleted from the revised political science textbook of Class XI. This, along with the increased marginalisation of the Muslim community in India, are worrisome trends, says Ali.
“You are put in a double bind when it comes to Islam and queerness. You become a marginalised community within a marginalised community. On top of that, there is a general perception of Islam being regressive. So people think that there is no way you can be Muslim and queer. I am trying to challenge this perception through these walks,” says Ali. The Queer Muslim Project on Instagram with over 42,000 followers is another example of queer Muslims asserting themselves.
By retelling Delhi’s history, Ali also creates a queer subculture – a space that emerges in resistance to the dominant narrative. Sites like the Delhi’s Regal Cinema in Connaught Place that saw the first ever public protests by LGBTQ people in 1998, or the Indian Coffee House and the People’s Tree that nurtured an emerging queer movement are all a part of this queer subculture. The walks also allow others to stand witness to this alternate history telling.
For Ali, oral histories of the queer community are as important as written sources. Ali’s own lived experiences of growing up in Old Delhi marks much of their storytelling. In another walk, Ali takes us to gay cruising spots in the city. In queer slang, cruising refers to the practice of fleeting sex between men, usually anonymous and often in semi-public spaces.
“Much before the advent of technology and dating apps like Grindr, gay men would cruise, exchange glances, and engage in intercourse,” says Ali. “In a society that punishes queerness, this was all gay men had back then. Of course with digital technology, things have changed.”
A few metres outside the Jama Masjid metro station lies a park where a wrestling match is held every Sunday, Ali tells us. “It is one of the oldest akharas (a wrestling centre) in Old Delhi, and players from all over the country come here to compete,” adds Haji Sahab, the akhara caretaker and a friend of Ali’s. But what Haji Sahab does not mention is that it is also a gay cruising spot. Growing up in old Delhi, Ali has known this all his life. And even today, it is frequented by the working class men of the area seeking sex, notes Ali.
Around Kashmere Gate, public urinals and parks are also cruising spots. They are dimly-lit spaces favoured for sex and as dating sites, “A lot of sex work also happens here,” Ali says.
Sex Work and Informal Networks of Safety
Nandi, who identifies as a kothi, a term used for effeminate gay men, is a sex worker from Old Delhi. She is also part of Ali’s walking team. The sex work economy, Nandi and Ali tell us, does not happen in a vacuum. There are support systems and allies such as the local NGO, SPACE, that spreads awareness about sexually transmitted diseases and distributes condoms to sex workers in the area.
While voluntary sex work is not illegal under Indian law, associated activities essential to sex work like soliciting in public, renting property for sex work are criminalised under the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (ITPA). As we have reported earlier, without the total decriminalisation of sex work, sex workers continue to be exploited by both their clients and the police personnel. For instance, Nandi tells us how police men routinely harass sex workers like her: “They ask me what I’m doing here. I ask them back, ‘Don’t you know what I’m doing?’ If there were other jobs for me, then I wouldn’t be doing this.”
In such circumstances, informal networks of support become crucial in sustaining sex workers’ livelihoods. To warn fellow sex workers of clients who are known to be dangerous or that the police are approaching, the networks use their own codes, usually words with Persian/Farsi roots.
According to a study conducted by Muhammad Sheeraz on Hijra Farsi, a language spoken by the trans communities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the language remains a secret because it is learned, and not a part of the mother tongue.
In the area’s traffic intersection trans people from the Hijra community, also known as Sartrebaaz or suit-salwar wale locally, solicit sex work. “We kothis cannot do our business there. And they cannot do their business here,” explains Nandi, “We all have different territories demarcated. If we don’t abide by them, then we get into fights”.
However, the transformation of the metro station into a sprawling tourist hub has affected cruising and sex spots. “When Delhi Metro’s Red Line first started from Kashmere Gate, I remember taking the train with my grandfather. The station used to be a garbage dump back then. But now it is different with big commercial chains that no locals visit,” Ali says.
It is now late at night and the walk has left us famished. We head to Jama Masjid for a bite. Ali doesn’t take us to the well-known food joints in the area like Aslam’s or Qureshi’s, but to age-old establishments that they promise serves great food. “It’s a dhaba owned by a family of wrestlers,” they point out as we feast on Changezi chicken.
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