Dilli Diary: Do queer people age differently?
And, in moments of personal vulnerability, what might ‘community’ mean, asks Akhil Katyal
In his poem ‘A Monsoon Note on Old Age’, the queer Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali imagines what it would be like to be old. It is an image of pristine loneliness. ‘This is fifty years later,’ he writes ‘I / sit across myself, folded in / monsoon sweat, my skin / shrivelled, a tired eunuch, aware / only of an absence’.
He was 38 years old when this poem was published in his collection, The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987); the first version of this poem was published ten years before, when he was in his late twenties, about four years after he left Delhi.
Not really old yet, the poet was already seized by a sobering gerontological vision. One in which the aged figure is registering only absences. His lot is not the sublimity of solitude, it is the piercing sting of isolation.
The ‘window bars / sketch a prison on me; / I shuffle the stars, / a pack of old cards’. His beloved, his yaar, has been lost. No community collects around him. Instead, he is surrounded by windows, stars, photographs and rain. The ‘night regains / its textures of rain. I overexpose / your photograph, dusting / death’s far-off country.’
It is a fairly subdued vision. Not just of solitariness but also carrying the charge of the word ‘lonely’ that has stayed true from the early 19th century: ‘dejected for want of company’.
Do queer people experience old age in a manner different from others? Given that the cultural scripts and the social infra-structures of togetherness handed down to them are different from others, surely old age, and its presentiments, hold a resonance that pinches them in a manner unlike others.
In a poem I wrote recently—called ‘Sitting in a fancy restaurant opposite Qutub, three queer friends think of growing old’—these three lines felt insistent: ‘We marvel at the heteros and their / knack for self-preservation’, ‘We draw a blank when it comes / to role-models who’ve cracked it’, and ‘We try to / project some years into our future / and go quiet.’
This, despite the fact that Delhi has had a long history of queer organising and collectivising. People have given their hearts and souls to ensure that queer folks don’t live in silos, don’t fall off the grid. To ensure that their visions of aged futures are not laced with foreboding alone.
I have heard of ‘red-rose’ meetings that used to take place on the terrace of the India Coffee House in the 1990s. During that decade, as has now been extensively studied and recorded, there were networking lists, phone-helplines, and weekly support-group meetings for same-sex desiring men, trans-folks and women, of different degrees and kinds for each.
The next decade saw the beginning of the spectacle and promise of Pride, that once a year threw open the net of ‘community’. Some people were caught within it, many weren’t. The net expanded in some measure in subsequent years. And held its talismanic quality.
Campuses started hosting more queer reading groups, student collectives, film screenings and discussions. By the 2010s—the decade of recriminalisation and the NALSA judgement—these turned into a large range of mutually informed, though largely disconnected events and student groupings, bringing together, to a greater or lesser extent, students across different language abilities, castes and classes.
Behind and before all of this, there was, and is, the omnipresent Hijra gharana where people have, for a long, long time, found ‘community’, that ambitious name we give to food and shelter, togetherness and happiness, that wading through daily conflicts with others.
And alongside all of this, there were the parks, the bus-stops, the urinals, the spas, the massage parlours where more fitful connections were made, and almost immediately unmade.
Queer activists did not have to organise this coming together. From Dhaula Kuan to Kashmere Gate, spanning all the forested ridges to the fanciest of manicured public parks, queer folks (am I correct in saying, mostly men and transwomen) met each other, sometimes in broad daylight, more often at dusk, had fun, and went away.
Sometimes the fun spilled beyond those fleeting moments, and became other things, other forms of connection. Most often, it did not.
All these ways of meeting and communing, and yet I still see many queer folks ageing away from ‘community’ rather than within it. Up until a few years ago, the joke among gay men some years older than me (I am 38) was—where are the gay men in their forties? They don’t show up as much as others on the apps. Have they disappeared into thin air?
True, some have coupled off. I surmise many more haven’t. Some have formed living arrangements with, or near, friends when mutual initiative, serendipity and/ or financial capital has allowed them to.
Some have become dutiful satellites to the heterosexual family, playing good uncles, aunts and family friends; others have done so more resentfully, not letting go of the charge of ‘freakishness’ they still see in the eyes of their parents, siblings, cousins or landlords.
Many have married heterosexually, though they are still on the apps and in the parks, and the claims you can make on them are more tentative.
But they are out there. Living, breathing, thinking others like them are out there. When I used to meet the historian Saleem Kidwai, who was then in his late 50s, his was a beautiful solitariness, a life of books, music and memories, a floor of his own above his sister’s, in a grand house in Lucknow’s Mahanagar.
I marvelled at the beauty of this aloneness even as I quietly accounted for the generational wealth that enabled it. Over so many years, when I call the poet Hoshang Merchant—a midnight’s child—at least twice a month, I speak to a man in his 70s, living by himself, queen of Hyderabad, at once formidable and feeble, strong (in literariness and laughter) and shaky (in body). When the knees wobble and you’re in the house all by yourself, what is community? Friends you can call, neighbours who might help, old students who will show up. On some days, that is enough.
Years ago, I had begun a poem with a question that still stumps me: ‘But who will take care of you / in your old age?’ It was the question my mother used to ask in the years after I told her about me. It was her foot in the door to tentatively suggest marriage to a woman—listing all my closest female friends as possibles.
And while in life I was more bombastic in my answers, in the poem, I found the courage to lay down my arms with ‘I do not know.’ To declare, under my breath, ‘I still refuse to treat love / as a retirement policy. / But maybe it is just that. / Why should I stud it with moons and stars, / why should I bejewel a simple need. / Maybe all of life does come to / but who will take you to the hospital / when you will fall down.’
I did not have a smart answer then. I do not have a smart answer now. But at least, I don’t try to sound smart any more.
Recently, when I dislocated my left shoulder, and was in excruciating pain, all by myself in a second-floor house, not knowing how I would go down the stairs and hail an auto to take me to the hospital, I did not for a moment consider reaching out to the landlord who lives below me.
Who did I call and who showed up? Two people. One was someone who began as a grindr date some months ago and is now a friend. The other—who came straight to the hospital and stayed with me till they deposited me back to my house later that night—has been a friend for years.
The former lives with his family, hasn’t told them a thing, and goes home each day after work as late as possible. The other also lives by themselves, three neighbourhoods away—we speak every day. Both friends are floating islands like me. And when they saw me in a time of need, they floated closer.
(Akhil Katyal is a Delhi-based poet, translator and teacher)