Mr. Wrong: Ifti Nasim (1946 – 2011)

by Azra Raza

ScreenHunter_19 Jul. 25 11.34 According to every convention, my friend Ifti was all wrong. He was born at the wrong time. He should have been born in 2150. He was born in the wrong country. He should have been born in Hollywood. He was born to the wrong parents. He should have been Tallulah Bankhead’s child. He was born to the wrong siblings. He should have been my sister. He was born in the wrong body. He should have been Marilyn Monroe. He was born to the wrong friends in Pakistan. His friends should have been Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Joan Crawford, Tennessee Williams, and Bette Davis. He was born to lead a life of luxury, dividing his time between the French Riviera and throwing extravagant parties in Manhattan. Instead he became a car salesman.

And if he had to become a car salesman, he should have been wearing the conventional salesman’s clothing. Ifti wore silks and brocades. He should have cinched his best car deals by groveling in front of clients. Instead, he succeeded by sassily telling Oprah Winfrey when she asked him how big the engine of the Mercedes was, “Are you going to sleep with it?” And when Mary Anne Childers asked him to open the trunk of the car she was buying from him, he famously remarked, “Honey, do it yourself, I just got my nails done.”

And while other salesmen were attending classes to polish up their PR skills, Ifti was busy being a gay activist. He created SANGAT, the organization devoted to Gays and Lesbians of South Asian origin. And why couldn’t SANGAT be content with their periodic display of solidarity by marching through town in the Annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Day Parade? Instead, Ifti raised funds to hire lawyers who have successfully fought cases to earn Immigration status for individuals seeking asylum because of their sexual preferences. And why did I regularly meet strangers in Ifti’s home who had found sanctuary in his ever-welcoming apartment?

Ifti could have been a highly successful stand-up comic. Instead he became a writer. And if he had to become a writer, he could have stuck to one genre alone. Instead he wrote poetry in Urdu, English and Punjabi; he published several books of short stories and became a serious journalist writing pithy, enormously unsettling, weekly columns unmasking the hypocrisy of some of our more pious and decent members of society; he started his own highly successful radio talk show.

And if he did decide to write about homosexuality, why could he not follow the traditions of the “love that dare not speak its name” and convey his agony through innuendo and metaphor? Instead he published the first ever book in Urdu devoted openly to homosexual love. Nirman (or Hermaphrodite) uses direct, graphic imagery and explicit language.

ScreenHunter_20 Jul. 25 11.40 And why did he not confine himself to writing about gay and lesbian issues alone? Instead, his utmost dedication was reserved for defending women. One of the things which moved Ifti most in this world was children. I can tell you from first hand experience that Ifti was the biggest support I had during my pregnancy in Chicago. He gave me strength and support and took Lamaze classes with me. And when Sheherzad was born, he promptly declared himself to be her Fairy Godmother. The deep affection with which Ifti treated my daughter since the day she was born remained unmatched. Here is one small example of his supreme and unconditional love. This happened almost 15 years ago when I lived in Chicago. He called one afternoon and said he was coming over for a few minutes. He arrived with an envelope saying this was the very first check of Royalty he had ever received in his life on a published work. And he wanted Sheherzad to have it. It is still sitting (un-cashed) along with her first teeth in my safe. And this summer, when Sheherzad got accepted to Columbia University for her undergraduate studies, Ifti’s was the first call of congratulations from among my friends because he had been living through the anxiety with us.

And when my husband Harvey was diagnosed with cancer, Ifti found out about it second-hand. He called me. Instead of offering the usual words of sympathy, what he said was vintage Ifti. “I have told Prem (Ifti’s longtime partner) to get us a new treadmill. I am going to exercise everyday now,” he said, and when Prem asked him why, he said, “Sheherzad is young. Azra might need me. I want to stay well for Sheherzad and Azra.”

And why could he not be content writing in one language? Instead he wrote fluently in three languages: Urdu, Punjabi and then English. And why could Ifti not be satisfied with just being a writer? Instead, he managed to become a popular speaker as well, appearing frequently as a guest of South Asian student organizations at major Universities in the US and Europe. He earned an honorary PhD. He regularly got invited to international conferences. He won countless awards, both local and international, for his brilliant writing, as well as for his fearless activism. He also received a bullet in his leg as a student leader in Lahore, received regular physical threats and a murderous assault by a crazed Muslim on Devon Street.

I will never forget the quintessential Ifti-story when he was in Delhi as an honored invited speaker at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s International Conference on Love. He attended a fancy dinner at Khushwant Singh’s home. During the course of the evening, a well known society butterfly breezed in and started regaling the guests with stories of her recent trips that included a stop in Havana to get her husband’s favorite cigars, and suddenly turned to Ifti with an expression of; “Excuse me, but why are you standing with the guests?” Then with a disapproving frown proceeded to ask disparagingly; “Aren’t you one of the entertainers for the evening?” A sudden hush fell upon the room, broken by Ifti’s calm response; “No, I am not a musician. Actually, I am a writer, but then…you wouldn't know anything about that.”

And on his 50th birthday, he called me with the news that one of his lifelong wishes had finally been realized. He always wanted to look like Queen Elizabeth. Now they looked alike. “She looks like me!” So when he went to India at the same time that the Queen was visiting, I made it a point to call him in Delhi and say, “Right, Ifti! You are exactly what India needs after Elizabeth…another Queen who dresses badly.”

In Chicago, we were known as the Hag-Fag couple, and Ifti insisted that he was the hag.

And if he was going to write in English, could he not have written about neutral subjects at least in his very first book in this language? Instead, he wrote A Tree of Water, Myrmecophile, Infanticide, For a Dead Pedophile, and Ode to a Dick! And if he published such outrageous books, could he not have been ignored or condemned with faint praise at best? Instead, he was invited to give readings at universities and bookstores, national and international conferences, public libraries and private mehfils. He was interviewed by newspapers including the stodgy Chicago Tribune which regularly devoted large sections carrying glowing tributes to Ifti’s activism and poetry. Several films have documented his life and some of the most famous singers from South Asia have immortalized his beautiful verses by rendering them in their inimitable voices.

And if he had to die, could he not have chosen a more conventional way of doing it? Instead, the drama queen that he was, he did it with his usual sense of theater, leaving us reeling with utter disbelief and shock. He developed difficulty breathing in the early hours of Thursday morning as he was writing away, asked Prem to take him to the hospital and proceeded to have a dramatic cardiac arrest in the ER. He was resuscitated and taken to the ICU, where he arrested again. I sat heartbroken by the Hudson River at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning knowing that as of the last 24 hours, his organs were gradually failing and now it was a matter of time. I said my private goodbyes to him. I came home and sure enough, within minutes my brother Abbas called from Italy and said, “If you have not heard the news yet, I did not want you to find out from anyone else…Ifti died a few hours ago.” Minutes later, I got a second phone call, this time from India. “Azra, is it true?” sobbed an inconsolable Javed Akhtar at the other end. “Yes, Javed, it is true, our Ifti is no more.”

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

–Ifti Nasim

So ladies and gentlemen, here was someone who managed to defy all odds, and who climbed the ladder of success not rung by rung but wrong by wrong. My best friend. Mr. Wrong to the rest of the world, Ms. Right for me. Ifti.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on his breast,
I vex my heart alone,
He is at rest.

ScreenHunter_21 Jul. 25 11.42

This is my last picture with Ifti taken at my home in Manhattan on May 1. Ifti had come to read his poetry at the Asia Society Mushaira at my invitation. Ifti is standing with the famous writer Samina Qureshi. Sitting with me are the Pashto poet Sher Gul, the great Urdu poet Fahmida Riyaz and members of Asia Society.