Now that the Supreme Court has decriminalised homosexuality, I look back and remember how difficult it was to write on this issue! The year was 2003, I just returned from Oxford and was planning to pursue my second PhD on the great Urdu poet Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq’ Gorakhpuri. Firaq is considered to be one of the greatest Urdu poets of the 20th century. He taught English at Allahabad University and was India’s English, Urdu, Persian paper-setter for the civil services. He was an avowed homosexual who made no bones about his sexual proclivity. The late journalist Vinod Mehta wrote about Firaq’s homosexuality in his autobiography, Lucknow Boy.
I sent an application to the UGC for approval of my proposed thesis in Urdu: ‘Sukhan-e-Firaq mein humjinsi anasir’ (Homosexual elements in Firaq’s poetry). I didn’t even get a reply. I then started approaching the heads of Urdu departments at Allahabad, Lucknow, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Delhi and Bhopal universities. All tried to dissuade me: ‘Aap Firaq ki shayari aur shakhsiyat ke kisi aur pahlu pe kyon nahin kaam karte?’
It was, indeed, frustrating. I studied Greek poetess Sappho’s Fragments in BA course. Her poems were homosexual in nature. The word ‘Sapphist’ for a lesbian was coined after Sappho. Even the word ‘lesbian’ is associated with her as she hailed from Lesbos, a tiny Greek island in the Mediterranean. More than 2,500 years ago, she was writing lesbian poems!
I wrote to the governing body of the universities of Pakistan. I immediately got a reply that I was free to pursue this subject from any university. An Islamic country allowed me to pursue PhD on a subject that is a taboo in Islam. Moreover, Firaq is a highly respected Urdu poet in Pakistan and is bracketed with Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmad Faraz.
I chose Karachi University and met the HoD of the Urdu department, Dr Tahira Naqqash. She gave me the option to choose a guide or even pursue my thesis without one. This is unthinkable at Indian universities. Many European universities let their advanced research students pursue research work without any guide.
Dr Naqqash, an international authority on Firaq and Faiz, was my nominal guide. I finished my thesis and got my doctorate. No one intervened or raised eyebrows. Later, my Urdu thesis was given a book form and recommended for students of Urdu poetry in various Pakistani universities.
I wonder, what would today’s ‘liberated’ India do if someone like me wants to study homosexuality and lesbianism of a sacrosanct figure as a part of advanced research? I still have doubts about India’s liberalism in the matters of sexuality.
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