My current project on queerness, Pakistan, and the idea of the failed state begins, somewhat unexpectedly, with Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. It was published in 1900, well before Pakistan existed or became allegedly “failed,” but it has been resonating strongly for me, all the more so for the queer unnameability of our young protagonist, whose opening description comes with so many caveats in the form of “thoughs”:
“Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white — a poor white of the very poorest.”
What does this tanned white boy have to do with me? For starters, our relationships to our mother-tongues is fraught, if for different reasons; I come from a Punjabi-speaking family that has tried to erase its linguistic tradition over the generations, and so I speak a cobbled-together Urdu-Punjabi hybrid, to the consternation of all Urdu teachers and wry smiles of all Urdu-speaking friends. Kim seems easy in this space, though he does not belong. This unbelonging is the driving force for my work on queerness in Pakistan—how the body marked so obviously Other, even though it appears to belong, disrupts the space it occupies. For another, my gaze follows Kim’s in the lines that the novel opens with:
“He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher — the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.”
I have been sitting with this line for months, wondering what to make of the boy astride a cannon facing the ajaib ghar or museum, the house of wonders. Then, a couple weeks ago, I saw the call for submissions to this magazine with the invocation to join this new ajaib ghar, home for the queers, and I felt moved. A place for us to unbelong together. So in the spirit of this ajaib ghar, I want to try and name the marvels in mine.
“I love you,” I say to her as she shuts the phone. She has been crying. A week prior, as we shut the phone, she had said “I love you,” as I hung up after crying. She is not my girlfriend; I have mine, she has hers. But she is everything else and everything in between; the home that those of us who unbelong rely on, the intimacies of care that only friends who are more family than family can give each other. Every time we say these words to each other, we do not say them lightly. We do not say them lightly because we know how lucky we are to have support, even if we are six thousand miles away and I cannot help her wash and put away her dishes after she has been cooking all day, and she cannot help me find my keys as I run late to my first in-person appointment in three months of lockdown.
It is really the everyday I crave. Pride month is here, and it has brought with it a flurry of photos of brown joy—women lying on top of each other reading the newspaper, drinking coffee. Nothing long-distance there, nothing tortured, hidden, or silent. Even when we are happy with our partners, far away from us but in the same city at home, we want more than what we get, more than stolen weeks and feigned research excursions to be permitted to kiss in public, which I often feel is the cornerstone of normalcy. Fewer descriptions of what we did, conversations we had, meals we cooked; more dinners burned together, late-night ice cream excursions, the instant headache/headrush from the kala namak in gol market’s nimbu soda.
These things are not always available to us though—so when we are spent from fighting with our girlfriends on the phone about how we want more—more attention, more touch, more space, more sex—we call each other and hang out, making paratha rolls (me) and tortilla rolls (her), allowing our resentments to seethe and then dissipate. We complain about work at the end of our days, honoring the indignations that pepper each other’s’ days. I need to voice every emotion I have; she keeps her cards so close to her chest that if I did not know better, I would think she had no feelings at all.
We have been friends for half a lifetime. “I’VE BEEN SEEING A GIRL” I once gchatted her. “ME TOO” she had responded. This was about thirteen years ago. Neither of us knew what to do. But in that exchange, thankfully, we knew we were safe.
“I love girls,” I tell my girlfriend. She hates the term “girlfriend,” considers it deeply inadequate for the magnitude of the relationship we have. What she doesn’t know is that I secretly agree with her, but what word replaces the easy, quotidian quality of “girlfriend,” a word forbidden for someone of my gender (what is my gender)? I always want what I can’t have. She is fond of saying that the day I get to have her I won’t want her anymore. I cannot imagine that scenario. One day when we fought badly I thought “might as well stop this, what is the point,” and sat with that anger for maybe fifteen minutes before my heart (or as my yoga instructor calls it, my “figurative heartspace”) broke at the prospect of even an hour without her in my life.
Our relationship is always on. Our time zones are such that one of us is going to sleep as the other is rising, and so like the British Empire in Kim’s world, the sun never sets on our relationship. I find that beautiful; a kind of continuum that is reflected in the silver rings we wear and have always worn—think every circle metaphor, no beginning or ending, etc. I write much bad poetry about it.
“I love girls,” I tell her.
“Uh huh,” she replies. “Girls plural?”
It is 3 am as I write this. I have lived by myself through quarantine but have spent nary an hour alone. In the evenings, for a while, we had fallen into this rhythm; she would call me, and for a little while our living rooms would be coextensive, the distance-barrier would melt away, and we could be cuddled up on the same couch idly gossiping about the people we now know and the people we have known for a decade. I have a lot of love to give; the more people I can give to, the less difficult this becomes. Because while I am separated from everyone I want to be with, I am in a room where sunshine streaming through windows rinses me awake every morning, I can buzz my hair every week if I want, and I have nowhere to be.