“Bigotry is no longer a guilty secret to be shared with close friends in drawing rooms; it is now a badge of honour that is proudly displayed in public.”
A recent quote from a scroll article by Meera Rizvi got me thinking a lot about a topic I’ve consciously avoided expressing my thoughts on for a while lest I be branded as a “zealot” or an “an unfree thinker” by my peers. I’ve always prided myself to belong to a certain brand of political consciousness that transcends politics of religion but since 2014, I’ve been forced to reconsider my stand.
Even the free thinker knows that nothing really comes free.
While, I by and large, am immune to the sudden upsurge in communal tension due to my class/privilege, a certain trickle-down effect cannot be ignored. One that comes knocking on my comfortable cushioning of big city life when I try and rent an apartment as a single, ‘Muslim’ girl in Bombay (touted as the only “real” Metropolitan city in the country), or when I’m reminded of my religion often at Indian Immigration when I go to visit my father in Dubai – a sudden hostility, wariness that I ignore for my own mental peace or the constant current of conversation where my peers (some more educated and far richer than I or my family is) talk about how their families have steadily negated and/or warned them of their romantic involvement with somebody of the opposite sex of the Muslim faith without any given reason has led me to believe a constant discourse of “us vs.them” is now more a part of public dialogue than it ever has been. And as it is with any discourse, it’s forced me to look at my own limitations that I’ve been consciously toeing all my life – forcing myself to disassociate with my own last name, a particularly embarrassing incident as a child where my maternal grandfather gave my pet name (a self-proclaimed Hindu name) at a doctor’s clinic instead of my real name which has a more obvious Arabic connotation to it (despite having Germainic roots) or the time collecting a fabric my mother had given to the local Muslim tailor in our colony in Noida (back in the ’90s when NCR was leafy colonies, clean air and summer morning swimming) to be stitched and when he asked me my mother’s name, the ten year old me innocently said ‘Zeba’ (the name given to her by my parent’s family when they got married) – an act of betrayal that my mother brought up with me with tears in her eyes and I was too young to entirely understand
I should mention here that my mother is of the Hindu (Aryasamaji) faith and for the time I spent at home (until I was 17), we celebrated Eid, Diwali, Holi, Karva Chauth (the slightly misogonystic implications of this festival are not lost on me as I write this) with the equal excitement and fervour. I remember my father carrying out buckets filled with coloured water to our terrace to drop on my mother and her friends rolling out gujias in the sun. Time went on seamlessly with no outward display of religion in my household – everyone was free to do as they deemed. Pujas, havans, namaaz – little punctuations in daily routines when one, as an adult feels they’ve had too much, and needs to find succour in constructs larger than them and their little struggles. My father moved to Sharjah (an emirate infamous for its enforcing of stricter laws based on religion compared to Dubai) for work and along with it came money and a sudden consciousness of a ‘Muslim’ identity. I attended Qu’ran classes (against my adamant wish) when I was 15 but it felt like my father was trying to live a life scripted for him by someone else – he still had the occasional drink but he wouldn’t miss his Friday namaaz for anything whereas my mother felt her identity dissolving slowly in a more majority-driven society. From the call to namaaz five times a day to the conspicuous lack of temples to scores of women in abayas, Muslim was the new normal. Couple that with the pressure of starting a life from scratch abroad with a family and all the Immigrant woes that come with it, my mother drifted back towards what she knew best – her maiden, Hindu name, an identity handed to her by her first family – without understanding its larger implication on her new family and suddenly, new fault lines were exposed in a marriage that had happened despite the events of December, 1992.
I yearned to move back to India, I felt like I’d been unceremoniously uprooted from my own country and that no amount of money or pomp and a gleaming exterior that Dubai had to offer could replace the authenticity of being back home. I didn’t subscribe to the consumerist culture Dubai had to offer and dreamt of pursuing the Arts so I applied to a boarding school in the north (Welham Girls’) and as they’re wont to do, my parents supported my decision. Identity in Welham ran on the lines of talent and mere hard-work and for two years I was blissfully unaware of any other kind of identity until I decided to pursue a Bachelor of Media Studies in Pune. From a certain professor singling me out to wish me Eid in private instead of in front of the whole class as they might on Diwali, etc. or a kid from Bihar calling me “a dirty, NRI Muslim” and asking me to go back where I came from in the first week of college – I was suddenly thrust into a world where religion seemed to be at the forefront of any public discourse. My last name said more about me before I could.
So, I moved back to Delhi. A city I remembered from my childhood. A city, more aggressive and materialistic than most, but one where religious identity was never under scrutiny, where a small, burgeoning community of artists, journalists, writers found solace in one another and were united by the memory of a shared past (Pre-Partition). Muslims were a plenty from manning grocery stores to the local hairdresser to the girl doing the community beat at Hindustan Times, to an ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, it was cool, exotic even to be an attractive, intelligent Muslim woman and I cashed in on that exoticism with impunity. A certain “saleeka” (refinement of a general sensibility) was the domain of the erstwhile residents of Delhi (and the consequent Awadh) and well-respected amongst most. They didn’t need to be apologetic about their culture and customs, Urdu literature was taught in schools, Muslim names populated some of the performing and applied arts and while, reservations remained in place about inter-faith relationships, bigotry wasn’t worn on the sleeve by any.
Delhi changed rapidly and without warning. Suddenly, gruesome rapes were reported in mainstream English newspapers, rapes which were earlier confined to villages and towns on the outskirts of the capital were now happening a mere 30 minutes away from where I stayed, the pollution was getting worse each winter, rumour on the grapevine was the Centre was punishing Delhi and choking it of its clean air as a retaliation for Kejriwal being elected and slowly and surely, tired of its quiet patriarchal constructs and a general disregard/disrespect by its men for the opposite sex, prompted me to seek meaning elsewhere.
A certain incident stands out in my memory in Prague when an English-Czech actor I would often collaborate with did a double take when he learnt that my last name denoted somebody Muslim. I couldn’t explain the fissures within my identity to my own people, much less to a different race but I remember the warmth comfort of familiarity coming home as I got off Alexanderplatz in Berlin in the neighbourhood of Neukölln with its myriad kebab shops, young Arab kids running around, their chubby cheeks rosy from the December cold , cussing each other in German, more brown faces on the underground metro than white and once again, I was reminded of the unsaid comfort and confidence granted by the idea of ‘numbers.’ In film school, the identity of religion was sidelined heavily by the identity of an artist but nonetheless, I was confronted by certain truths I’d been elegantly avoiding when I arrived at the more diverse city of Berlin.
The pursuit of authenticity brought me to Bombay in June, 2017. The first onslaught of who I am, who I’m looked as by everyone else came to me when real estate brokers would ask for my ‘caste’ blatantly. The problem with the concept of ‘saleeka’ is a lot of real problems and discussions are brushed under the carpet under the guise of ‘good manners’. You are not to ask anybody how much they earn, what their age is (if they’re visibly older to you), where they lived (even though pin codes go a long way in determining who you are in the world); all my childhood fears of saying the wrong salutation to the wrong side of the family (Namaste to Dad’s side and Asalamwaleikum to Mum’s side) came rushing back as I began navigating the messy, deeply hierarchical & misogynistic space of the film-making industry. Bombay had entire buildings dedicated to specific communities, what you ate and what your last name was could largely determine what real estate you were destined to, the East of every posh suburb relegated to the ghettos – the city seemed to be most comfortable with its divisive identities united by two things: money & survival (and an artistic vocation for some but I’m not sure if that ambition comes from a place or art or fame or both or that maybe it truly doesn’t matter).
With hate crimes against minorities and underprivileged communities at an all time high in the last five years, with a bought-up mainstream media and the very real culture of fake news, I found myself, for a better part of my time, insulated against the communal tide enveloping the country. The politic that mattered in Bombay was different with different communities (veganism and yoga for Bandra, late-nights and caffeine for Advertising, social realism for the indie film circuit, etc.) but politics of any kind wasn’t the mainstay discussion of anybody I was around. Life, for most, was a haze of work and drinks and the occasional Facebook post about the latest uproar. My attempt to ignite a conversation to understand some of my friend’s opinions on the looming elections on a Thursday night was drowned in protests of – “are we really gonna do this right now?”
A corollary to this large political apathy around me was to turn to counter-culture news outlets to understand my own views on what the country was preparing for and a lot of discussions in the bedroom with my partner about his politic. My partners hails from a highly educated, traditional family from Bangalore and through his perspective – I begin to understand the politics of a space I haven’t been exposed to as much as I’d like to be. And, I realise that the south isn’t divided on communal lines the way north and north/central west is so what I deem to be parochial on his part, is actually just a different environment, different wants, a different world he was brought up in.
We both find protection and shared values in our middle class guilt that propels us to hustle (that dreaded late-capitalism word now a popular justification for ungodly work hours in unorganised industries and disproportionate wages for the same) and a deep desire to get to the root of creating itself, so it’s easy to leave our ‘society-given’ identities behind but the looming idea of officiating partnerships brings forth both new and familiar fears – different cultures, different religions, different regions. Will our societal identities overtake a shared identity we’ve created when and if things get hard the way my parents did? Children carry wounds into adulthood consciously and sub-consciously and a lot of lives are dictated by a collective fear harboured by a community (the pressure to marry the minute you turn 25, the pressure to earn a certain amount, to go into the family business, to marry within a certain community, to have a certain number of children) rather than taking stock of values that jar – those discrepancies is what defines us to the truest extent.
One of the biggest wounds that Delhi as a city carries is the destruction of its language – when you want to destroy a people, you take away their language. Suddenly, Urdu is spoken of as the language of ‘Islam’ but it wasn’t so originally. It was the language of the arts, of a certain sophistication that comes from creating, from pursuing a sort of spiritual truth, it’s the language of my father’s love letters to my mother, of his poetry scribbled on yellowed papers that my mother has painstakingly saved (despite her consciously adding her maiden name as an affixation to her married name on Facebook recently). We, as people, have funny little actions of returning to our identities, of wanting to feel like being a part of a community, of something larger than us to give us meaning outside of the exhausting cycle of and bills (and mediocrity for some). I truly think the arts can be a sort of deliverance from the existential angst which is unavoidable but that too, comes with its own share of insecurities and isn’t for the faint-hearted.
As I conclude this, I realise I have nothing to offer in terms of my identity except an all-consuming confusion. Stunning moments of clarity only come through in sudden moments of love – and perhaps, acknowledging that, identity is less about being, and more about becoming.