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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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