“Aazad Kashmir or Indian?” Is the second text that pops up on my Grindr screen after a perfunctory “Hi”. I am in Sopore, in Kashmir, attending a friend’s wedding, not very far from the Line of Control that is the de facto border between India and Pakistan in this region. I’ve been putting off opening Grindr here. I am a guest at my friend’s house and she’s getting married in a couple of days. Her friendly and large family are welcoming and fill every hour of my day, from chirpy cousins of all sizes and ages who insist I play cricket with them, to being taught Kashmiri wedding songs that are being continuously sung by aunts. I am also continuously being fed all kinds of deliciousness. Besides, I’ve really never seen the point of opening Grindr when I know I won’t be meeting anyone at that time. My friend has made it clear that it’s not safe for me to step out on my own there, and the times that we do go out, we are accompanied either by one or more of the singing aunts, or a cousin of varying shape and size.
That day, however, is a Friday, and the house is quieter. We have been fed a sumptuous breakfast, and are now lounging about the house. The aunts are not really singing much, given its the day of prayer. I tell myself that there’s no harm trying to figure out the Grindr scene here. I’m not going to step out to meet anyone, but perhaps it would help pass the day if I just talked to some people. I open the app, and receive the texts from this guy who obviously was on the other side of the LoC, in what is called Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in India, and Aazad (Liberated) Kashmir on his side. I answered that I was on the Indian side, in Sopore.
The above exchange was followed by him sharing his pictures, and I sent him my pictures as well. He asked me whether I was Kashmiri, and where I ordinarily lived in India. I replied that I was not, and that I lived in Bangalore, and that I was only visiting Kashmir. We then exchanged names, and I came to know that he lived with his parents and siblings near Muzaffarabad. He then disarmed me with a line which said quite matter of factly, “Kaash hum mil sakte. Aap mujhse dosti karna pasand karte.” (I wish we could meet. You would have liked to become my friend). There was an earnest way in which the text rang out in my head, and apart from that, there was the certain impossibility of us ever meeting, which made the text seem sincere as well.
I replied saying that I wish we could have met as well. And that I was sure I would have liked to know him better. After a while, I went offline and didn’t login again for the duration of my stay in Kashmir. But I have kept thinking about the incident though it’s been more than two years now. In these years, I have been on and off Grindr, dated some men, and have had my heart broken several times. Going on Grindr for me is anyway full of an uncertain dread. The currency there is mostly fast paced and passionate conversation with an end goal clearly in sight. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. To try can be tedious, can end in rejection, and be off putting. The encounters can be greatly satisfying, or wretched, or everything in between. One has to constantly negotiate a space of age, likes, and place which can be taxing and requires a certain level of dogged perseverance that I mostly lack. Add to this negotiating an international boundary between two countries that are sworn enemies, and you might as well kiss the prospect goodbye.
This, of course, leads me to think on a tangent. What if India and Pakistan were not enemies, and people could meet freely across our borders, what if there was no partition at all?! It seems really unfair that when people eat the same food, speak the same tongues, and are culturally as close as can be, that we should be so estranged from each other. Specifically, why should the queer population, which had nothing to do with the politics of partition, and which has been itself oppressed by the religions that demanded partition, have to pay this continuing price for partition? To be sure, straight people suffer in this manner as well. We have families split across India and Pakistan, their chances of securing visas and travel fluctuating ominously with every election and swing in Indo-Pak relations.
My thoughts on this subject have varied over time. Isn’t it also true that the queer people in Pakistan have suffered, indeed continue to suffer, worse than their counterparts in India? Stuck under a theocracy where the chance of legal reform towards LGBT rights is dim? Isn’t the rise of any religious right wing always accompanied by a setback to queer rights? Why did queer people suffer the way they had to because of partition? Then I realise the absolute essentialism of my argument. A queer Pakistani could be both Queer as well as Pakistani. I had no business feeling sorry for them and then wishing that their country didn’t exist, and call it their emancipation! Besides, India, with its tilt towards militant right wing politics isn’t really a heaven for Muslims right now, and perhaps has never been so. They are perhaps safer in Pakistan than they would have been as Muslims here.
Flash forward to 2020 and we are in the middle of a lockdown that stretches before us endlessly. Dating apps panic at the prospect of people not using them anymore, and throw out their geographical limits. A perfect opportunity to again cross the border into Pakistan presents itself. I pick my city of choice this time as Karachi. The commercial hub and largest city in Pakistan, a mirror of Mumbai across the Arabian sea rising out of the Sindhi desert. There is again no hope of meeting these people in real life, no careful tailoring of words is required to ensure a date follows from any of this conversation. They know this too.
Over conversations with several people in Karachi what I discover is the great cultural proximity and mirroring of experiences across the border. We dote on the same music, are soppy about the same kind of poetry and Bollywood flicks. We detest the respective religious right wings of our countries, and these political parties by the way, are more similar to each other than we imagined. We long for simpler times when getting a visa to either country was not a feat in impossibility. One of the guys I talk to had his family migrate from present day Uttar Pradesh and pines to see the Lucknow his grandfather left behind as a child. We discuss the nuances of the ghazal and he asks me to translate Devnagri that he has always wanted to read. I ask him the meanings of many Urdu words. I encounter no hostility from any of the people I have talked to, just a genuine warm hearted embrace through our phones.
Friendly banter is interspersed with Sarabhai v. Sarabhai references and jokes that cut across political borders. We found a similarity of aspirations, deep felt desires and longings that resonated with each other. We video called each other, and continued our conversations. I told him to live stream All India Radio Bangalore’s daily classical music programme at 8 pm. We listened to each other’s stories and joys and sorrows looking at the night skies that must have not appeared very different to him in Karachi than what they seemed to me in Bangalore.
I also learn a lot on queer politics in Pakistan from them. Naively, I ask an activist what the strategy or work around decriminalisation will be like (Pakistan has S.377 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which is the same as S.377 was in India). My privilege is checked almost immediately. They say that any challenge or advocacy around decriminalisation will lead to a certain and ruthless conservative backlash which will hurt many more queer people than any effort would help them. That, for now, they would wish to not challenge any law, but just be let alone working through HIV prevention efforts, which is what the current situation easily affords them. They tell me about the disastrous LGBTQ event held at the American Embassy in Pakistan some years ago, that instead of helping the queer population, brought them into public attention and scrutiny. I listen to them, first with disbelief, then just quietly, chastened. I also realise that the legal rights that queer people fight for are broader than just decriminalisation of sexual intercourse. Pakistan has certainly done better than India on transgender rights legislation, with a progressive judgment of the Supreme Court in 2009, and a law guaranteeing equality and gender self-identification in 2018. A focus on 377 also displays my own bias towards the rights of cis-gay people as the starting point of all queer activism.
We have so much in common and can talk for hours. We forget for a time that there exists an impenetrable border between us, and when that thought does cross our minds, we just sigh and carry on. For now, it’s an invisible hand parting our collective hopes and aspirations. Perhaps one day we will meet in another country. Sri Lanka would be a good place to go to on a weeklong vacation, I say. He says that one day, things will be better, and we will visit each other’s cities too. Perhaps one day, they will.
Disclaimer: This piece should not be interpreted to mean that I endorse the term “Aazad Kashmir”. The term is used here only to accurately depict the conversation.