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A series of history walks looks at old Delhi through a queer lens

Chef-conservationist Iqbal Ali’s queer history walks showcase another aspect of the Capital’s rich and layered history

Currently, Ali conducts three walks such as the Purani Dilli Queer Heritage Walk, one on gay cruising spots in Delhi from the 1970s-90s and the food walk series called Queering Food
Currently, Ali conducts three walks such as the Purani Dilli Queer Heritage Walk, one on gay cruising spots in Delhi from the 1970s-90s and the food walk series called Queering Food

This year, during Ramzan, Soumya Jayanti, a student of Ambedkar University, with her friend, embarked on a walk through the alleys of old Delhi to sample the delicious fare. They tried dori kebab, haleem, biryani, gud ka sharbat and mohabbat ka sharbat. And their guide through this gastronomic sojourn was Iqbal Ali. The 32-year-old chef, who grew up in old Delhi, identifies as a non-binary trans person. A former co-founder of the now-closed Chez Jerome Queer Café, they are also a conservationist with a keen interest in community-led retellings of history.

Around eight years ago, Ali brought their two passions–a love of history and the desire to create a safe space for the LBTQIA+ community—together for the first time by conceptualising a walk about the queer history of old Delhi. They started doing it commercially about a year ago.

Currently, Ali conducts three walks: Purani Dilli Queer Heritage Walk, which explores the queer history of the Mughal era and traverses the areas around Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk; gay cruising spots in Delhi from the 1970s-90s to explore what the gay scene in the city was like before the advent of the Internet. They’ve also started a food walk series called Queering Food.

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Ali often adapts the walks to festivals and occasions, such as the one that Jayanti embarked on, which focused on street food during Ramzan. Held mostly on weekends, the walks attract people from all walks of life, both from within and outside India—some who are interested in the general history of the area, and others who want to learn more about Delhi’s queer history from the pre-Mughal times to now.

During most walks, Ali encourages participants to interact with the locals, who narrate contemporary stories and oral histories. “We didn’t go through the main street with famous shops, but through remote streets where Ali knew the people really well,” says Jayanti. “It was such personalised tour, as (they) clearly knew the community and culture very well and had a close relationship with them.”

So far, Ali has curated 13 walks around the history of Delhi, getting participants through word-of-mouth and his social media posts. Every stop on the walks touches upon an important site in Delhi’s queer history. Ali cites the example of Nawab Bahadur Javed Khan, who was a ‘eunuch’ and a guard of the Mughal harem. Javed Khan had the Sunehri Masjid built in the mid-1700s, next to Red Fort. This masjid is one of the stops on the Queer Heritage Walk.

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They also speak about the Shaheed Sarmad Dargah. Legend goes that he was in love with a Hindu boy. At the end of the walk, Ali gifts the walkers a book about the life of Hazrat Sarmad, bought from a bookseller, who sits next to the shrine.

Meanwhile, the first stop in the gay cruising walk is at a dangal maidan or a wrestler’s den. “The place became a spot for discreet meetings among working class queer men and trans people, and now many of them live in this area,” says Ali. Some of the local queer people have partnered up with them for the tours— they talk about the history of the area and receive a part of the walk’s proceeds.

Through the walks, they specifically want to debunk the notion about the queer community—that they have been somehow ‘corrupted’ by ‘Western’ culture into becoming who they are. “As a queer and trans person, it is so powerful to reclaim your history,” they say. “This is the way to stop our displacement in time and space, and reground ourselves in the physical areas where our ancestors lived and thrived. Get into your head that we exist—and we’re not ashamed.”

And clearly there are lots of people interested in this unusual framing of the Capital’s history. Recently, Ali teamed up with student queer collectives from Ashoka University and IIT-Delhi to conduct walks with their members. “It’s a great idea and we’d love to curate something similar in Kolkata,” says Iftekhar Ahsan, founder of heritage walks company Calcutta Walks, “Throughout Indian history, queer people have had roles to play and it’s time we learn to appreciate this diversity.”

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With the verdict for marriage equality ongoing, it’s an interesting time to explore India’s queer history, especially one in the heart of the capital. “Iqbal’s efforts are fantastic,” says Anjali Gopalan, founder and executive director of The Naz Foundation Trust, a not-for-profit focused on HIV/AIDS relief, gender and sexuality, which plans to hold similar walks later this year. “Walks like these give people the space to start discussions they otherwise may never hold.”

“Our history is often framed through a heterosexual lens, and queer folks are often forgotten,” says Sharif D Rangnekar, Delhi-based author of the books Queer Sapien and Straight to Normal – My Life As A Gay Man, and curator of the Rainbow Literature Festival. “So when this history is recalled in all its rich and informative detail, it validates our existence."

The walks cost 700 per person and are held in groups of up to 25 people.


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