It is getting a bit on the wrong side of etiquette, with bored young queens throwing all caution to the wind. As the hours tick lazily by at a late-night ball, first comes the loud music, then the lewd gestures. And then, some stunning dance moves from androgynous boys whose only claim to fame are monikers borrowed from Lollywood sirens.
But then Khushboo, the host, makes a dramatic appearance, and a hush descends over the hall. The lights are suddenly turned down. An audible collective gasp (whether of shock or admiration, you cannot tell) hangs over the audience as Khushboo, decked in drag, walks in like a vision – a skimpy Madhuri Dixit choli and ghagra, with heavy jewellery and tonnes of make-up.
Peshawar is not a comfortable setting for a gay bash, particularly with the growing Talibanisation of NWFP. But determined souls nonetheless will always find ways to have fun. Khushboo, 27, has gotten the seven-year itch, and he is now back in his hometown to celebrate. After seven years in New York and a marriage that turned sour, he has tied the proverbial knot yet again. And, come rain or a hail of religious vigilantes, Khushboo, the enduring drag queen, is determined to turn tonight into a night to remember.
His friends, a lively gaggle of twenty-somethings and aging androgynous men, flock to him like workers around a queen bee. In a manner that belies many rehearsed moments before many a show, he intones in flawless English, with theatrical pretence to nervousness: “For seven long years I have dreamt of this moment, to be here with my friends. Of course, I do this on a large scale in New York, but I am happy to perform for my friends tonight.”
A nod to Madhuri Dixit, who he believes to be an “institute” – “And you, a prostitute,” comes a snide remark from a friend, inviting giggles from all the boys – and Khushboo breaks into breathtaking steps in time to “Maar Dala”, a tune from Madhuri’s film Devdas. At the end of the song, with no break and still a little breathless, Khushboo flows effortlessly into yet another Devdas number, “Kahay Chair Mujhe”.
But he cannot go on forever, and soon comes an invitation to those gathered to show off their own dance talents. “Anyone’s got a favourite number?” he asks, a hand on his heaving breast. Everyone has one, of course. The guests, it seems, are out to outshine the host. But hard as they try, they cannot hold a candle to Khushboo’s star quality.
A tall boy with a shaggy wig perched like a nest on his head comes around and confides jealously: “Look,” he points to the soiled front of his bead-studded black shirt, “I embraced Khushboo and all her concealing cream got stuck to my shirt. She is a good dancer, but what about her long face? It’s like watching her in cinema-scope.”
Khushboo excuses himself to change into another dress. He retouches his make-up in another room, a grimy backstage, while the hotel staff peeks in the windows. Meanwhile, one of his friends holds the audience enthralled with a snake-like dance, an impersonation of a nagin, a snake woman. He could be a belly-dancer or a gymnast.
The groom-in-drag returns, this time in a see-through dress studded with imitation rubies. When he learns that there is a reporter among guests, he is theatrically alarmed. “Hai janoo, you know, meri abhi abhi shadi hui hai,” (Love, I just got married). He moves a hand in an affected gesture before resting it on his chin. “I don’t want to have a bad name. A lot of people read that newspaper.”
Assurance about neither names nor photographs being taken puts him at ease, but his friends are still wary. “I don’t want my photograph taken,” cautions a tall, pretty Afghan boy dressed in black, somewhat aggressively. And then, as if to make up, he asks, “Do you work in Islamabad? I always come to Islamabad,” adding “for sex” as an afterthought. The Afghan boy and his mates study at a local business school. He speaks fluent Urdu, like a Pakistani, and does not want to go back to Afghanistan. “I was born here, janoo”, he says.
Soon, its time for a photo-op with Khushboo, the star of the night. “May I have your attention,” he waves at the buzzing queens. “Only after dinner!” drones a tired guest. “I love your cleavage,” intones another. “It’s natural, you know,” retorts a pleased Khushboo.
After a chaotic photo session, during which Khushboo strikes dramatic poses with everyone from a boa-clad, muscle-bound Afghan, to a hip youth whose only clue to alternative sexuality is the gender-bending lingo, Khushboo thumps his heels to jingle a tiny bell on his feet, and offers to perform again. This time, he will dance to a song filmed on “our very own Reema, who is an inspiration, and there’s no one quite like her when it comes to classical music.” In a dramatic passage during the song, he falls exhausted to the floor, consumed by the anguish of the lyrics.
The other life
Just before dinner is served, Khushboo sits down for a brief interview. With an expansive gesture, he summons the boa-clad Afghan to come sit next to him. “Please put your arms around me, because I am very nervous,” he moans seductively.
So, what is life like in Peshawar versus New York for a performer like him?
“From my perspective, I have no freedom here, I am a misfit. In New York, I can live the way I want,” says Khushboo. “The weather here is bad, the water is bad. I am drinking tap water that is likely to give me a bad tummy. I am so looking forward to going back.”
And who is Khushboo in real life? “I am a business-accounts executive by day, a drag queen by night. I live like any decent guy. This is my other life. I have strong beliefs. I come from a religious family, you know.”
Khushboo plans to take his wife –“an educated BA-pass girl with a great fashion sense” – to the Big Apple in the near future. “I have a boyfriend in New York who is grieving now because I got married. But we have to get on with life. I have talked him into sharing our flat, so I’ll be living with my husband and wife – and, hopefully soon, a baby. I am so looking forward to it.”
While a guest at the party has seen him perform at a khatna (circumcision) celebration for a Southasian family in New York, Khushboo would have you believe that he is destined for greater heights: “I perform at the August 14th Independence Day celebrations, the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association events, and private shows that pay a lot of money.”
The interview is interrupted by another drag queen, Shahida Mini, introducing his “boyfriend”, who has just arrived. The boyfriend is a tribal Pashtun, very handsome and very, very drunk. Soon, he is throwing up on his dinner plate, while a very concerned Mini frets and fusses over him. Someone pumps him with lemon water, and he quickly revives, to everyone’s obvious relief. Mini looks relaxed, as the boyfriend dozes off yet again.
The interview is resumed, only to be interrupted every now and then by the chattering queens. Khushboo turns them away with a quick, caustic wit that has clearly come back with him from New York. Someone brings Khushboo a plate of food, but he declines with an incredulous, “Don’t you know, janoo, I have been on a diet for decades!”
Khushboo left for the US on 10 September. “Being a Pakistani, I’ll have a warm welcome at the Kennedy Airport when I land there on 11 September,” he says, grinning. “But I’ll go back in drag. That always helps. They just leave you alone.”
~ Aurangzaib Khan writes from Peshawar.