The One Or The Other

A friend sent me this sms today.

“6 am rush hour. Getting stuff ready for school. I get a call on my cell. A polite male voice wishes me ‘salaam walekum, bhai jaan hai?’ … I stammer ‘nahi, nahi’. My mind is blank, being yanked into a different world. I search earnestly, is it — salaam walekum or walekum salaam? .. What was the right thing?… Only when the voice asks for bhaijaan again that I remember to say wrong number. He says sorry .. I go back to world but thoughts creep between my stupidity of salaam or walekum and my son’s lunch boxes. Could that be a terrorist? .. Strange how easy it is to make me suspicious, even with all my intellectual upbringing which seems so skin deep.. How easy it is to break my faith on the other Indian who I’ve never learnt to wish …”

In Agripada, where I lived until I was 12, we lived amongst Anglo-Indians, Catholics, Parsis, Hindus, Muslims, all of them having their own smaller, distinct communities. When we moved to Pune Cantonment, to the list were added Tamilians, Iranis, Sindhis, Punjabis, Kannadigas, Konkanis. It was not only that people of different religions and regions jostled with each other, but also people of different classes. Around us, there were children who were richer than us, children who were poorer than us, even the children whose mothers worked in our homes, and we played in each other’s houses, ate at each other’s houses, slept over at each other’s houses and often, studied in the same schools and colleges. It didn’t seem like a big deal, then.

When I go back to Agripada now to visit some relatives, I can see only Muslims there.

When I go back, I myself feel like an outsider. Even when I make a long dreamt of visit to Mohammed Ali Road for Ramzan Iftar, I feel like a tourist, thrilled with the crowded markets, the food stalls, the smells of the food that belonged to my childhood.

I feel the same when I speed by in the car over the JJ fly over, on my visits to South Mumbai. Seeing Saifee Lane, where my grandmother lived, Nakhuda Mohallah from where we caught the tonga from for our Sunday ride to the Gateway of India, Nagpada street which led to the theatres on Grant Road where I watched my first films, along Mohammed Ali Road, seeing the windows, the ‘chaalis’ where friends and relatives once lived – now seeing it from the top, seeing it more crowded, wondering ‘Was it always like this? Did I live amidst this?’

Once when we walk through Chor Bazar, my husband, Vivek, and I, the dirt, the trash around appalls me. But I walked here everyday, my uncle still lives here, even though I rarely visit anymore.

In Old Bhuj, the old ‘mohallahs’ nestle side by side, demarcated only by invisible community lines. After the earthquake, the people are rehabilitated community-wise. The areas don’t collide with each other. It’s 7 years since I went there last. Perhaps the people don’t look into each other’s houses anymore. And perhaps they have forgotten how to greet each other.

In Baroda, all our family and extended family lives in areas where only people like them live. Housing colonies that even overlook ‘the other people’, have lesser realty value.

In Bhopal, feeling very brave, I walk into a RSS office for an interview. My name is not immediately recognizable as a Muslim name. They mistakenly hear it as a Hindu name. I do not correct them. They rave and rant about ‘those people’. They say ‘We should go and rape their women, burn their houses.’ Yes, they say it, and I hear them. They say, ‘They never let their women marry Hindu men’. Someone mentions Nargis and Sunil Dutt. They say, ‘Oh, those film people, they do anything.’ At the end of the meeting, I say, ‘Shukriya’ instead of ‘Dhanyavaad’. A man’s ears perk up. He starts to whisper something to the person next to him. I hurry away, scared. They are 12, I am alone with 1 assistant.

I feel like the Pakistani spy (Priya Rajvansh) in Chetan Anand’s Hindustan ki Kasam who says ‘Hai Allah’ and is caught out. Or was it the other way around – an Indian spy who says ‘Hai Ram’? How does it matter really? It’s hard to say who is ‘the one’ and who is ‘the other’, whether I am ‘the one’ or ‘the other’.

Used as I am to say ‘Hi’ and ‘Hello’, I fumble too when I have to say ‘As-Salamu Alaykum’ or ‘wa`Aleykum As-Salaam’. I also fumble when I have to say ‘Namaste’. Strangely, ‘Khuda Hafiz’ comes easily to me. Strangely, because my belief in God is at its, best, shaky. Perhaps, it is in these confusions that peace lies.

Or perhaps not. As in my short story, Alias.

* I have changed some spellings in my friend’s text message from SMSese, in the interest of easy comprehension.
* As-Salamu Alaykum (Arabic) – Peace be upon you
* wa `Aleykum As-Salaam (Arabic) – and upon you be peace
* Khuda Hafiz (Arabic) – May God be your Guardian
* Namaste (Sanskrit) – I bow to you

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  1. Yes, Batul- My father, whose family ran away from Rawalpindi, in Pakistan, lived in Mohammed Ali road , and grew up there, going with his brothers and neighbours to study in the Anjuman-e-Islam school, there….
    And used to get nostalgic about the food there, the books he got in urdu- the only language he was really comfortable in, the Mirza Ghalib Society of which he was a Life Member….

    And, he tried to teach me alif, bey, pey, but writing different languages is not my forte, just speaking them… 🙂

    And, yes, it has become about Us and Them- sadly.. when They are really US in a different house, in different clothes, but the same culture- watching teh same films, listening to the same music and suffering from teh same inflation and price-crunch, and bigotry and politics….

    Amol Gupte wrote Taare Zameen Par, because he believes in Inclusion. Thats what we should apply in our schools, housing societies, politics, culture, lives….

    And, i think it has to be an endevour from all the communities together…

  2. Wonderful reading your blog as always, Batul. Perhaps you and me don’t make a deal out of this stuff, but our ‘guardians’ do…..having attended a convent and moved around in cosmopolitan circles(courtesy the defence),one has had friends from all castes/creed/etc….we attend iftaar as do ‘they’ come over for Diwali/Dassera…phir maajra kya hai?Samajh mein nahi ata!

    Aao milkar Bharat banaye….khuda-hafiz!

  3. Jyothi,

    That you speak so many tongues not only fluently, but with so much pleasure, is a great gift too. I used to get Urdu books from the Poona College library, books I don’t think anyone had taken off the shelves in a long, long time. I was taught the Arabic script as a child to be able to read the Koran. And in college, I opted for Urdu as a subject, because I love the poetry. I was a real kid struggling with the calligraphy while the 3 other students with me wrote beautifully because they had studied in Urdu medium schools. They all treated me with great indulgence.


    Yes, it’s the defense services which have given Pune Cantonment this lovely character, and of course the University and its colleges.

  4. you don’t sound very unbaised yourself. maybe i’m trained to listen to the subaltern
    when you are not part of the solution you are part of theproblem. live and let pray yes is the right way. how are we going to acheive it? if the division bothers you see what you can do to change it. writing a blog is not going to help.
    vande arya –(it translates to greetings)

  5. Thanks, Nimit. But it’s not about being secularists, hindus or muslims, pseudo or otherwise. It’s about coming to terms with one’s own perceptions.

    Sharmila, you don’t have to dig too hard to study my biases. I think my confusions are quite clear, and that is what this post was about. As for being part of a problem or a solution, I find it strange that a regular blogger like you should feel that blogging or writing or articulating in any form, for that matter, one’s concerns with what is happening around oneself, should be a waste of time. Thanks for introducing me to a new greeting.

  6. if you stop at voicing (i know it is mispelled) its a waste. what is next? what is the two penny bit that every human being can do?
    do you realize for a handful of terrorists the entire muslim community is held in suspicion just as a handful politicians have made the hindu’s resentful. have we ever stopped to think why we have such terror vendors sitting at our parliments? we’ve elected them. do we have the courage to go the booth and invalidate our franchise? no i have to say responsiblity/patriotism,. Did you know that if more 25% of the electorate invalidate their franchise, all the candidates of that constituency are debared for the next 5yrs, and the constituency has go for re-election ? have we exercised that option?

  7. Hi Batul,
    very well written piece. Being in a cosmo city, I didn’t face this prejudice for a long time. In fact
    during the riots of 93 my muslim workers escorted me safely at home after a day’s work, assuring me-
    “Madam- aap ko kuchh nahin hone denge.” And I trust them fully. I supported my friend’s family by taking
    them food, messages etc, because they dared not step out of the house. My friend Saeed was in Dubai.
    The phone lines as usual were down.
    For one bad report in the papers, I remember 3 good incidents.
    So as of now, the side of the good is heavier. Let us think of the good people around us and stop
    the provokers in their tracks by our non cooperation.
    May be I am too naive, but It is time for someone to stay sane.

  8. Thanks, Suniti.
    Yes, I think that’s the most important thing, to retain one’s own sanity. It’s when we lose that, that terror actually wins.

  9. hi, for the last time,
    its interesting, that you choose to ignore it when you are asked to take responsibility, this what turns a neutral apathetic hindu like me into a irritations, the more energetic ones rebel. born and brought up in a country of hindu majority, which by and large 80% treated you with equanimity– you resent having to say namaste, and at the same time you are comfortable with “the secular kinds” who say salaam and khuda hafiz? think about it young lady and see what you can do reduce this distrust that is growing against muslims.
    Do you know that the uzbecistan, and krygstan kept islam alive even through the russian dominance because the women of the zanana did so, what i’m trying to tell you is as an individual make an effort at least for 24hrs to greet every non-muslim with namaste check your pulse and palpitations you won’t have a heart attack after all you must below 30 your estrogen levels will protect you.
    yes every muslim must face askance for not stopping your fellow muslims from becomming terrorists.
    may the almighty bless you
    there is a saying in sanskrit “the cry of silence is most deafening”

  10. Hello Sharmila,

    No, I don’t take responsibility for every Muslim becoming a terrorist, just as I am sure you don’t take responsibility for every Hindu fundamentalist.

    Also, I don’t feel grateful for the 80% majority Hindus treating me with equanimity. I don’t think I am supposed to feel grateful for ‘being allowed’ to live in my own country with tolerance. I belong here as much as you do.

    I think you should read a post carefully before you comment. Perhaps in your haste to read the subaltern text, you misread the original text itself. No, I don’t resent saying ‘Namaste’ and I don’t recall saying that anywhere in my post either.

    I commend your abilities to not only judge my age but also my estrogen levels, the general state of my health and my day-to-day behaviour from a 600 odd words post.

    As for my 2 bits, should I send you a quarterly, half-yearly or annual account, and where should I send it? Are you also taking this account of 2 bits from every Indian citizen? If so, I appreciate your efforts.

    Silence can also be healing.

  11. Partly in response to sharmila’s comments…

    Though many terrorists claim to be ‘muslims’ and are hence perceived as muslims, their ideologies do not represent the teachings of Islam. Surely they are NOT muslims.. or “fellow muslims”;… as terrorists, they belong to and follow their own unrecognized religion. And likewise, the terrorists who claim to be hindus, christians, etc. So it is as much the responsibility (if any) of every non-terrorist, of every recognized religion, to “reduce this distrust that is growing against muslims”. It is unfair and ridiculous to put that onus on muslims alone.

    muslim, non-muslim, hindu, non-hindu… this demarcation based on religion is sickening, especially in the context of terrorism. We are either ‘terrorists’ or ‘non-terrorists’. If every non-terrorist will stand together and support each other, the majority can be so overwhelming, and that is when the cause and effect of terrorism will begin to weaken. Sounds idealistic? Right.

    If i were to use her own method above, i would estimate sharmila’s age to be around 58, with terribly low estrogen levels. But that doesnt matter… it has no bearing on her “voicings” and the sad knowledge that she does not belong to that “80%” who would treat a muslim blogger with equanimity.

    Namaste, As-salamu alaykum, Khuda hafiz, Hello, Hi, or Wassup dude… how does it matter yaar?

  12. This is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! Keep up the excellent work.

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