Pakistani American who fought for ‘minority within minority’

By Ashok Easwaran, IANS,

Chicago: In the early 1990s, the concierge at the apartment complex where Ifti Nasim lived in Chicago, called up to say there was a visitor who insisted on seeing him although it was one in the morning. “It is a Mr Khan,” said the concierge apologetically.

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It turned out to be the legendary Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who had studied in the same school as Nasim in Lyallapore (now Faisalabad) in Pakistan. He had invited Nasim for a concert earlier that evening, which Nasim could not attend.

“He sang for me at my home till 5 in the morning, and I got goose bumps listening to him,” recalled Nasim.

Nasim, who died last week of a heart attack, had indeed lived a full life. Since his death, eulogies have appeared in American newspapers across the country and blogs around the world. A columnist in The Chicago Tribune called Nasim the most famous Chicagoan whom residents had never heard of.

Nasim, whose poems have been immortalized by renowned Pakistani singers, including Ghulam Ali; an activist who founded Sangat, an organisation for South Asian gay and lesbians; an anti-war activist; and a mentor to many, Nasim was instrumental in several gays from India getting asylum in the US.

Nasim himself came to the United States in 1971 to escape persecution in Pakistan for his sexual orientation. Like many immigrants, he did several odd jobs before becoming a salesman at a luxury car dealership in Chicago. Although one of the dealership’s top salesmen, he was, by all accounts, unconventional in his sales approach, wearing silk and brocades to work. He famously told a well known Chicago television personality who wanted a car’s trunk opened, “Honey, do it yourself. I just got my nails done.”

As I discovered in the 15 years I knew him, Nasim loved to shock and outrage people.

But beneath the bravado and the posturing was a man who cared deeply about people and the causes dear to him, and one whose engagement with other humans, went beyond the barriers of sex, religion, politics or geography. His poetry reflected the turbulence and pain of a life in the shadows. He was, for long, ostracized by conservative Muslims. “Even success brings only grudging acceptance. They just about tolerate you,” he told me once, “if you are a gay Muslim in America, you are a minority within a minority.”

When I was first introduced to Nasim, what struck me most were his outlandish clothes, which more or less reflected his flamboyant personality. He was the first openly gay person I had met in my life. I was intrigued, and perhaps, in retrospect, even a little wary.

Over the years, I got to know him better. He was fond of poetry and the Hindi films of the fifties and the sixties. One of his favourite Indian poets was the lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, although he would always qualify his admiration with, “I, as a poet, would consider it below my dignity to write for films.”

Immediately after the terrorist attacks in New York in September, 2011, I did an interview with him. He was one of the very few Muslims who spoke out openly when the community had withdrawn into itself. “The Mullahs are quiet. I do not know why,” he said. “Hatred,” he said emphatically, “is not a cause”, a statement I found pithy enough to carry as the headline of the interview.

I learnt much later that Nasim had been a mentor to several young Indian Americans, turning around many turbulent lives in the process. He urged some of them not to rebel or to sever relationships with their parents, while persuading others not to abandon their education. I suspect that it was Nasim’s bohemian demeanour that made his sage advice palatable to the young.

A columnist in a Pakistani American newspaper, Nasim also had a radio talk show. He was quick witted and unsparing in his barbs, but one had to know him long enough to realize that the profanity and crassness were only on the surface, part of a defense, one suspects, that sensitive gays develop to cope with a brutal and hostile environment.

I asked him once why most gays turn out to be gentle souls. His reply bespoke his past. “Because most of us have gone through so much pain and rejection in our lives, that we cannot but be sensitive to the pain of others.” He would make a philosophical statement, then seek to deflect it, with a joke. I found him, almost always, effervescent, often beginning a phone conversation with ‘honey’.

One of life’s perennial regrets is not having spent enough time with those who pass on. A fellow journalist and I had been planning to meet with Nasim for several weeks. “Let us meet in my studio and then I will take you both out for a nice dinner,” he had told me. Even as we were finalising the meeting, I learnt that he was in hospital in critical condition.

At his funeral service, I could not help thinking about the precise randomness of death. The scythe, almost invariably, falls on those who have not drunk completely of the cup of life, although Nasim himself may probably have had a different view. “I have done everything, seen everything. I am tired,” he told me recently before breaking into his characteristic high pitched laugh.

It may, of course, have been one of his statements meant for effect. Or then, again, he may have had a premonition. In tributes, fans have quoted one of his couplets:

“Ab nazar aana bhi usska ek kahani ban gaya
Wu zameen ka rahnay waala aasmaani ban gaya”

I could never transcend the thought that his self-depreciating jokes and his poems hid a deeper anguish. I would like to remember Nasim through one of Mirza Ghalib’s couplets. The idea that life is a continuous struggle, which can end only when life ends is a recurring theme in Ghalib’s poetry, as also in the films of Guru Dutt, a director whom both of us admired.

qaid-e-hayaat-o-band-e-gham asal mein dono ek hain
maut se pehle aadmee gham se nijaat paaye kyon

(The prison of life and the bondage of grief are one and the same
Before the onset of death, how can man expect to be free of grief?)

(Ashok Easwaran is a Chicago based journalist and commentator. He is presently writing a biography of the actor Ashok Kumar. He can be reached at [email protected])