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Flights that end at the edge of nothingness

Updated May 19, 2012


I am in Chicago. Iftikhar Nasim is not. He died.

“Let’s not fear death, death is not the end of a dove's flight,” says Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980), Iran’s Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “Death does not reverse a moth's journey. Death is dawn's footsteps in a town enveloped in darkness … it sits, staring at us with frowning eyes and we fill our lungs with its grey breath.”

Yes, death is not the end but it does abruptly end a dove’s flight. It is sudden. So it leaves many things incomplete, undone.

Little things you plan to do together: walking in the snow, sitting beside a window and reciting poetry, swimming in a lake or just going to your favourite restaurant.

And then you repent why you kept postponing all these until it was too late.

Ifti was not a close friend but we all loved his poetry and short stories. He was also the most controversial among our friends. He was an open gay in a community that still kills its daughters for wanting a love marriage.

People of his background – semi-urban, middle class – do not discuss their grievances in public, definitely not their sexual inclinations. Ifti did and fought for it all his life.

I told him I wanted to do a long interview with him on South Asian gays in America and write a piece about them. He agreed but died last summer before we could do this interview.

His death closed a window, the only window I had to understand a community that we South Asians, particularly Muslims, refuse to acknowledge.

“Mother, I know you take my brothers to the soccer field every Sunday. So I come, park my car near the house where I lived once. And wait. When you come, I follow you, always maintaining a distance. I know you do not like seeing me anymore, mother, but I cannot stop loving you.”

This was a young Indian I met at a South Asian literary group in Washington, DC. He too was gay, so his mother abandoned him. He lived with his partner and could not visit his family.

And there was a Pakistani, in mid his 20s. I invited him to my children’s birthday – I have triplets so we have one birthday for all.

“Are you sure you want me to come?” he asked. “Pakistanis do not like inviting me to their family gatherings.”

“Oh, but why not?” I asked. He was well-mannered. Had a degree from the George Washington University, was smartly dressed and knew poetry and politics, two essentials for a South Asian gathering. So I thought he must be popular among Pakistanis.

“I am gay,” he replied. I still invited him. He came and sang Faiz’s “we will see, we must see the day that has been promised” and everybody loved it.

And I once again thought of the story I heard from that young Indian.

“You have a smile on your face as my brothers kick the ball around. I watch you passing around bottles of cold water. Wiping their faces with a towel, putting them back in the car and taking them to the McDonald’s as you took me to,” he read his story.

“Mother, I always watch you from a distance because I know you do not want me near you. But mom, I cannot stop loving you,” said he as a largely heterosexual crowd wiped tears off their faces. “Mom, I want to hug you.”

I thought of this young man as I was walking down Chicago’s Devon Avenue, the largest desi bazaar in North America. This is where Iftikhar Nasim’s guests preferred to meet him, not at his apartment where he lived with his partner.

It was also convenient for Ifti. Devon has dozens of desi restaurants and Ifti ate there almost every night. He would tell the visitors where to go and while the restaurant manager entertained “Ifti Saheb’s guests,” he would walk in with a big grin on his face.

“Hi ladies and gents,” Ifti would say loudly while taking off his trademark, large black overcoat, put his hat on the table and ask, always in Punjabi, “So, what are we eating today?”

And before the guest responded, he would tell them the first joke of the evening. As his laughter ringed across the room, people from other tables would get up and join him. And he would soon have a small crowd around his table.

After one such evening, which ended close to midnight, Ifti said to me, “I will drop you to your hotel.” I said I could take a cab but he insisted.

He was very quiet as we drove to the hotel. “What’s wrong Ifti Saheb?” I asked.

“I am tired,” he said. “Tired of pretending that I am happy, I am popular.”

“But you are,” I insisted.

“My foot,” he replied. “I know they love to laugh with me because I am funny but they also despise me because I am gay.”

Now I was quiet. “Even my brothers do not want me to visit them,” he said.

“Mom, I know you do not want me to come over to your place. And you do not want to visit my apartment. But come to me once, just once and kiss me on the forehead, as you always did,” said the young Indian.

“Yes, we will see. We must see the day that has been promised,” my Pakistani gay friend recited Faiz in Washington.

And I remembered one of Ifti’s non-gay friends telling me when he heard of his death:

“The massive heart attack that killed Ifti Saheb did him a favor. It ended his pain.”

“Bigger than life she was, modern she was, she knew by name all open horizons,” wrote Sohrab Sepehri when a close friend Forogh Farrokhzad (1935-1967) died.

Farrokhzad, who was only 32 when killed in a car accident, was arguably one of Iran's most influential female poets of the 20th century. She was a controversial modernist and an iconoclast who broke many taboos. And like all rebels, she too annoyed many.

Farrokhzad's poetry was banned for more than a decade after the Islamic revolution.

“Water and earth spoke to her; she sang the sad song of the real. Her form was her solitude. And she confided only to a mirror,” mourned Sohrab.

“Like rain drops she was filled with unsullied repetition. And like a tree she spread out the prism of light … and she flew reaching the edge of nothingness.”

The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.