At a wedding I recently attended, a lady asked me where I was from and when I responded that I belonged to Kerala her reaction was like a tight slap on my face.
“Kerala!” she sneered, “It’s a land full of Muslims. They’re all over the place. You can see them everywhere when you step out.”
Her tone made me doubt my ears for a moment. Was she talking of human beings or of queasy creepy crawlies infesting a week old corpse? The hatred in her eyes rattled me. More so because this lady was not some monster out of a fantasy novel but a very ordinary person in her late fifties; a mother of two grown up children and a grandmother of two.
This was not the first time that someone had expressed a hatred for Muslims at a social gathering I had attended. But over the years I have noticed that there has been a change in the way this is expressed. From being muted and whispered it has now acquired all the subtlety of a vuvuzela during an Indo-Pak cricket match. Earlier, the speaker often whispered and adopted an attitude of confiding something embarrassing. Something about which – depending on my reaction – the speaker could hide behind the pretence of being ashamed, of the constraints of being brought up by orthodox parents. As the years passed the tone became more strident with intolerance and an unabashed confidence that made me cringe. It seemed to say: I belong to this exclusive group of Muslim haters. Care to join?
Earlier, my reactions to such comments were muted. I was so shocked by the intensity of the loathing, that I did not know how to counter it or what to say in response. Because the vehemence with which opinions were expressed made me fear that there would be no debate, not even an argument and that it would soon degenerate into a one sided shouting match given how quick to anger people have become. The anger and the vehemence and the refusal to debate or argue rationally point to the fact that they know in their heart of hearts that what they say is not true.
But as the hatred grew more vocal and acquired the colour of moral righteousness I thought I should devise a strategy to counter it. This would be my small way of ensuring that my India remains as I want her to be – secular and inclusive. A squirrel’s contribution of a few small pebbles to ensure the building of great bridges.
Whenever I encounter such a comment I say gently but firmly that I don’t have any hatred towards Muslims; I have many good friends among them. That it is not right to hate any community as a whole because people of every shade of good and evil are to be found in every religious denomination. When I say this a shutter falls down some people’s eyes and they just walk away. Some others turn defensive and tell me about all their excellent Muslim friends. I’m happy to say that there are more of the latter.
So today, I thought I’d write about all my Muslim friends though I confess that it never occurred to me that they were Muslim until I thought about this article. You just slip into friendship with people whom you like; you don’t conduct elaborate interviews and ask them probing questions about their religion, caste and region.
The first person who comes to mind is Bakery. No she was not named so but that was what we called her because her ‘surname’ was Abubacker. Her given name, we felt was a misnomer, for it meant a light breeze and she was a veritable typhoon. Bakery had decided opinions about everything and she expressed them assertively, stabbing one fair forefinger in the air to make her point and then dissolving into mischievous laughter. We competed in several ‘elocution’ contests and sometimes Bakery won and sometimes I did. But off stage we were thick as thieves. Bakery enjoyed irritating me by pretending to be stupid. I remember a debate we once had during the lunch break about whether sophistication was a virtue or not. Bakery succeeded in annoying me so much that I walked away in a huff only to come back sheepishly on hearing her rumbling laughter. Later, Bakery was thoroughly exasperated with her medical degree because marriage proposals only saw the doctor and not the woman behind the qualification.
And then there were Bua and Baba. I called them so because their children did. When I went visiting I too was their child. Though they had five of their own they understood that intense desire of an only child to belong to a large teeming boisterous family and took me in. They would buy me a gift every time they bought something for their daughters. And it was not as if they were rich. They were often strapped for cash since Baba was the only earning member. Shabu, Banu and I were best friends. Father always vouched for the fact that Banu brewed the best tea in the world. For the eldest daughter Beti’s wedding I got a new dress too just like the others and along with the others I too called her husband bhaijaan. On many a lazy afternoon Bua would wander over to our house because she craved for Mother’s excellent upma and filter coffee. The two women would sit at the kitchen table and talk for hours.
Naushad, their eldest son was Mother’s pet. He would give her a lift on his battered scooter if he found her walking down the lane with a bag of groceries. Years later when Mother lay on her deathbed I was astounded when Naushad just walked in. No one knew she was sick. He told me that in the morning he had felt an urge to see her that very day and so he got on a train and travelled two hundred kilometres. Mother died the next day.
Then there was Daulat. Just thinking of her makes me smile because she had such a terrific sense of humour and a delightful irreverence. Nothing was sacred to Daulat. Neither college timings nor last dates for submitting assignments. Daulat came and went as she liked and turned in work if she deigned to. And much later because Daulat was away abroad I remember how her mother broke her fast during the holy month in order to be able to attend my wedding and partake of the feast.
And then there was Feroze, who had frequent motorbike accidents and got away miraculously unharmed and Shabu who loved reading and Farzana who was breathtakingly beautiful especially in a thattam (headscarf) and Saajida who baked the most yummy cakes and shared them with me during boring lessons as we were all backbenchers and Ahmed with whom I had epic fights.
I wonder where they are all now, whether the changed atmosphere has affected them and made them feel like the other. Whether they have clammed up and become wary and decided to give their children religion neutral names. Whether they look over their shoulders while walking down an empty road at dusk. Whether they think intermittently of migrating to a faraway land.
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